Situated on a lively public square, adjacent to a working-class neighbourhood, which directly overlooks the historic Rotunda da Boavista in the heart of present-day Porto, is the Casa da Musica by the Office For Metropolitan Architecture, home to the Porto Symphony Orchestra. Inaugurated in 2005, the project was part of the Porto 2001 initiative tasked with undertaking developmental and cultural interventions in the city’s urban fabric after Porto was named one of two European Capitals of Culture for that year.
Area: 22000 m²
Year Of Completion: 2005
Competition Team: Rem Koolhaas, Fernando Romero Havaux, Isabel Silva, Barbara Wolff, Uwe Herlijn
Local Architect: ANC Architects
Architect In Charge: Rem Koolhaas and Ellen van Loon
Project Architects: Adrianne Fisher, Michelle Howard
Structure: Arup London / AFA Lda
Interiors, Curtains: Inside Outside
Services: Arup London / AFA Lda/RGA
Acoustics: TNO Eindhoven and DHV
A restricted competition held by the organization as part of this scheme, to award the commission of a new modern concert hall and performance venue in the centre of the city, eventually selected the work of Rem Koolhas and his team at OMA, who formulated its design and executed it over a four-year period.
The structure sits isolated atop a swooping travertine plaza, which forms a hilly landscape that envelops spaces such as a bus stop, cafe, and the entrance to the underground parking that hosts 600 vehicles. Its geometry was developed to invite onlookers into the complex, act as a gathering space, frame the structure, and reinforce its landmark status. It is also a prominent stop on Porto’s metro and bus lines. The building’s location and placement address the issues of symbolism and visibility for a beacon of culture and interaction.
Casa da Musica’s polyhedral envelope morphs when seen from different angles, which engages observers to move around the structure and experience it in its entirety. It has a smaller footprint on the ground floor that dramatically expands on the upper levels to provide shade and permit people to walk under it. Composed of white concrete panels, voids, and corrugated glass windows, it is reminiscent of a gemstone on display – contrasted by the fluidity of the travertine carpet on which it is exhibited. These finishes draw influence from Porto’s other modernist buildings like the nearby Porto School of Architecture by Alvaro Siza, coupled with Rem Koolhas’ panache for Cubist aesthetics.
This form evolved from an unbuilt residential project in suburban Rotterdam dubbed the ‘Y2K House’. To reflect the client’s desire for an orderly living space, Koolhas presented the idea of a solid polyhedral mass with a void in its centre. Ancillary spaces filled up the leftover area around the void with linked circulation paths that spiralled between them. When the client dropped out of the commission at the last moment, Koolhas realized that the residence’s facade and concept could be remoulded and scaled up for the competition.
The main entrance is placed several metres above the level of the plaza, with a glass balustrade staircase leading up to it. A high-ceilinged foyer greets users at this level, with staircases linked to other spaces and a window that frames views of the city. The intent here is to create an architectural adventure that invites users to discover the secrets of its interior on a pathway that blends functional and transitional spaces with no fixed destination. With the aforementioned scheme in mind, the building possesses a continuous, spiralling circulation route that consists of corridors, platforms, stairs, and elevators which connect spaces across its eight above-ground levels. This arrangement allows it to host multiple simultaneous performances and exhibits for festivals or other events. Strategically placed glazed openings expose the pathway’s contents to the public at intervals and large concrete beams intersect under its ceilings.
The Grand Auditorium with a capacity of 1,300 acts as the central void in the building’s mass that occupies most of its internal volume. Rem Koolhas and OMA initially wanted to avoid the notoriously common ‘shoebox’ concert hall but relented due to its categorically superior acoustical properties when tested against other shapes. This led them to consider alternate methods of innovation within a ‘shoebox’ typology, which resulted in a design with an imperative to bridge the separation between the interiors of cultural institutions and the general public. Hence, the walls at both ends of the Grand Auditorium are corrugated glass windows, which open them up to the exterior. They evoke the image of transparent curtains that offer distorted views of surrounding structures, allow sunlight to enter the space, and connect it to the public.
Although glass is often an acoustically poor material choice in music performance spaces, Rem Koolhas and OMA employed two separate screens with tight ripples at each end, fixed a metre apart for sound insulation. The auditorium’s remaining walls are clad in plywood panels self-referentially patterned with gold-leaf in the shape of an enlarged wood grain which warps notions of scale. These walls are punctuated by smaller, irregularly shaped corrugated glass windows with views of surrounding hallways and spaces such as the VIP area, which is finished with painted blue tiles that feature religious and pastoral scenes, commonly found in Portuguese churches.
The remaining areas occupy the residual space around the void of the Grand Auditorium and consist of a smaller, flexible performance space without fixed seating, recording studios, an educational area, restaurant, bars, and administration areas, among others. Each space has a distinct colour scheme and material palette, employing combinations of concrete, aluminium, glass, or tile. Dressing rooms for performers are located in proximity to both halls. The ten rehearsal rooms and soloist rooms for both resident and guest performers are set apart from the two halls on the lower and uppermost levels, with views of the surrounding urban landscape. A trapezoidal terrace is chiselled into a part of the roof, clad in chequered tile.
Structurally, the building consists of four enormous 400mm thick walls that extend from its base to the roof and link the staggered exterior walls to the building core. The two 1-metre thick walls of the Grand Auditorium act as internal diaphragms that longitudinally tether the structure to its large exterior walls. This combination forms the main load-bearing system.
The Casa da Musica was awarded the 2007 RIBA European Award, given out annually for outstanding contributions to architectural design in Europe. Its design signalled a new chapter for concert halls where they also served as recreational and congregational focal points open to the general public, in addition to their principal function.