Sound Design

TEXT Yuan Yi Zhu
PHOTO Don Toromanoff

There were high expectations for the Maison symphonique de Montréal, the city’s new concert hall. For decades, the Montreal Symphony Orchestra’s home was the nearby Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier, a cavernous 2,990-seat auditorium notorious for its harsh acoustics. Sharing space with rock bands and comedy acts curtailed the Orchestra’s practice schedule. Plans for a new venue were discussed for decades, and an international design competition for the project was held in 2002. Finally, financing for the undertaking was secured in 2006 under a public-private partnership scheme. Ground was broken in 2009 and the building was inaugurated in late 2011, with completion of the interior extending into the present year. 

 From the exterior, nobody could accuse lead designer Jack Diamond, of Diamond Schmitt Architects, of undue exuberance. The building, situated on a narrow strip of land at the north corner of the Place des Arts complex, is discreet almost to a fault. Half of it is clad in grey limestone; the other half is a conventional curtain wall façade. The overall effect is sober but dignified, and it blends well with its surroundings. Instead of a ground-level main entrance, audiences access the building by the underground lobby shared by all venues of the Place des Arts complex, an unsatisfactory arrangement stipulated in the design mandate, which means that many audience members will not see the building from the outside. 

The exterior is secondary compared to the inside of the hall, upon whose merits the success of the project should be more rightly judged. Visitors can have no doubts as to its quality: it is a first-class auditorium, which befits the first-class orchestra it hosts. With 2,100 seats arranged in shoebox style, it is a considerable departure from its horseshoe-shaped predecessor. A resolutely minimalist space, it uses overall materials and form to convey a sense of warmth and intimacy.

The interior, from the walls to the seats, is clad with Canadian beech, giving the whole a striking yet consistent appearance. The design affords the novel vantage point of seats behind the orchestra. Private boxes are conspicuously absent, and loges are lined with cosy armchairs, further adding to the hall’s appeal.

The lavish use of wood contributes to the hall’s acoustic quality, warmly reflecting sound while retaining aural fidelity. Acoustical engineer Tateo Nakajima also contributed sail-shaped adjustable acoustic canopies. In order to ensure that all audience members enjoy the same quality of sound, there has been a conscious effort to maximize the number of reflective surfaces, notably by building the walls in an undulating shape. Sound-absorbing curtains on both sides can be deployed to further fine-tune the acoustics.

Montreal’s music lovers have cause to rejoice: the city’s new Maison symphonique is a fine concert venue, which withstands comparison to any of the world’s great halls, and should be one of the city’s cultural beacons for years to come. CA

Yuan Yi Zhu is currently studying history at McGill University. 

The Maison de l’architecture du Québec (MAQ)’s annual Young Architectural Critic competition supports emerging voices in architectural journalism. Each year, it invites aspiring writers to submit critical analyses of a project selected by the MAQ. In the second edition this year, entrants attended a building tour and received tickets to a concert at the new hall. The winning French-language text, by Josianne Poirier, is published in Le Devoir: