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Frost Amphitheater

By Stephen Hinton

Stanford’s Bing Concert Hall, designed by Richard Olcott of ennead architects and the acoustician Yasuhisa Toyota of Nagata acoustics, is built in the “vineyard style.”

The term alludes to the way in which the seating is arranged in raked tiers, like sloping terraces in a vineyard. Surrounded on all sides by these terraces, the performance area is positioned near the center of the auditorium, instead of being located at one end, as it would be in the conventional rectangular (shoebox) hall or in the less common fan-shape format. (The latter is used, for example, in Stanford University’s Dinkelspiel Auditorium.) The spatial concept of the new hall’s design owes both to acoustic and to visual considerations: since none of the 842 seats is more than 16 rows away from the stage, every audience member is afforded an intimate and focused listening experience with unobstructed lines of sight.

The vineyard style first appeared in German concert-hall design of the 1950s, beginning with the 752-seat Mozart-Saal, built in 1956 as one of several halls that make up the Liederhalle in Stuttgart. Architectural historians generally agree, however, that the 2,440-seat Philharmonie in Berlin should be considered the paradigm-shifting model. Designed by Hans Scharoun in collaboration with the acoustician of the Mozart-Saal, Lothar Cremer, the internationally famous home of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra was finally completed in 1963 after several years of protracted planning and three years of construction. Toyota subsequently adapted the model for several of his concert halls, which include Suntory Hall in Tokyo (1986), Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles (2003), New World Center in Miami (2011), and now Bing (2013).

“The construction follows the image of a landscape,” Scharoun explained in his address delivered at the Philharmonie’s consecration. “The auditorium is conceived as a valley, and there at its floor, the orchestra resides, surrounded by the rising ‘terraces’ of a vineyard. The ceiling encounters this ‘landscape’ like a ‘skyscape.’ Formally, it has the effect of a tent.” Proceeding from the notion “that people today, as in all ages, form a circle when improvised music is performed,” the architect wanted to “transfer this natural occurrence, comprehensible to all psychologically as well as musically, to the concert hall.” Within the metaphorical setting of a natural idyll, in which the orchestra and conductor are “completely enveloped by their audience,” he was envisaging a place in which, as he said, “There is no opposition of ‘producers’ and ‘consumers’; rather, a community of listeners is grouped in a dynamic way and on various levels around the orchestra.”

“Peter Bing described the hall that bears his family’s name as ‘a place of concert in every sense.’”

By mixing nature imagery with language borrowed from the social sciences, Scharoun was situating his formal solution to the architectural challenge in a broad cultural context that had directly affected his own professional history. During the years of National Socialist rule, he had been barred from public projects and restricted to designing small houses. If Scharoun’s description of his conception betrayed the formation of his thinking in prewar culture, it also made a strong statement about the significance of the Philharmonie as a democratic symbol in the postwar period. The mayor of West Berlin, Willy Brandt, noted in the speech he gave at the consecration that the hall had been planned before the Iron Curtain had gone up in 1961. “This building,” he said, “is built facing the fellow citizens in the other half of the city. And this will prove to be correct more than ever when the wall no longer exists. Here we have the two realities of the city. Here we have the courage and spirit that guide our path forward.”

Comprehending music in sociopolitical terms formed a central concern of prewar German writers such as the music critic Paul Bekker, and it is hard to imagine that Scharoun was not familiar with Bekker’s books and articles, which were widely read at the time. For Bekker, who promoted classical music’s “socially formative power,” there was one work in particular that embodied that power—Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.

(The 1963 inaugural concert at the Philharmonie featured a performance of the Ninth, conducted by Herbert von Karajan.) No piece of music, before or since, lent such engaging expression to the community ideal that lay at the heart of Bekker’s critical writings on the symphony as a genre and, at the same time, inspired his vision of the concert hall of the future. In Das deutsche Musikleben (German Musical Life, 1916), probably his best-known and most widely disseminated publication, Bekker offered the following account of how the terms underpinning his sociological interpretation of Beethoven’s symphony would translate into a spatial conception:

What the concert hall should be in terms of what it offers us and in how the society that brings it to life is composed: the expansion and consolidation of church and community center in the modern era—that is something the concert hall should be in and of itself as a space, informing the layout of the architectural design. The orchestra should not be placed at a remove, as is usual nowadays, inserted into a niche that was originally foreign to the spatial-design idea. It must form, like the sanctuary of the church, the center and goal of the whole structure.

In his reaction to Bekker’s book, fellow critic Artur Bogen described the ideas about concert-hall architecture in a way that, as the Bekker scholar Andreas Eichhorn has suggested, uncannily anticipates Scharoun’s own design:

Thought provoking, too, are your observations about the music building of the future, i.e., concert hall. An architect, it seems to me, should make an attempt to design a space in which the orchestra is arranged completely differently from before, namely, freely in the middle of the room, perhaps with an elliptical vault; the orchestra would then form the focal point.

For the orchestra to form “the focal point,” the genre of the symphony first had to develop from its aristocratic beginnings in the mid-18th century, when it initially functioned as little more than background music during society gatherings, to its ennobled aesthetic status in the public sphere of the 19th century. When the first orchestral symphonies by composers such as Johann Stamitz were performed at the court of Karl Theodor in Mannheim in the 1740s, the musicians in the elector’s service occupied a niche at the side of the hall, while members of court seated at little tables conversed, drank tea, and played cards. Such audience behavior in symphony concerts would change radically over the next two centuries, of course, evolving into the more familiar attitude of hushed contemplation.

The transformation of the concert from court entertainment into a firmly established institution of bourgeois society on a par with organized religion is reflected both in the emergence of a subscription- buying public and in the scale, complexity, and metaphysical ambitions of the symphonic works themselves. Architecture, however, arguably lagged behind in fully embracing the spirit of the music. Beethoven’s choral symphony, with its “Ode to Joy,” may have conveyed the image of a world in which “all men become brothers,” but it took the vineyard style—imagined by Bekker and realized by Scharoun—to erase the last vestige’s of social hierarchy inherent in the architecture of opera houses and concert halls, with their socially stratified boxes and seating plans. In a vineyard-style concert hall such as Bing, the chorus performing the final movement of the Ninth (the “producers”) literally takes the place of some of the audience members (the “consumers”) seated behind the orchestra.

Architecture, according to Schelling’s much-quoted definition, is “frozen music.” And it seems only fitting that buildings for music should possess musical qualities in the purely formal sense of Schelling’s metaphor. Indeed, these qualities are manifested throughout Bing in the striking visual counterpoint of sinusoidal motifs. By means of this prominent design element, sound is represented figuratively in space. Yet appreciating the success of a representative public building such as this ultimately has to do with the way in which structure relates to purpose, how the architectural design accommodates the people it serves, not only the individual performers and audience members but also the community as a whole.

Therein lies the organic unity of the vineyard style. In the moving speech that he gave at the ground-breaking ceremony in May 2010, Peter Bing described the hall that bears his family’s name as “a place of concert in every sense.” Form and function are beautifully attuned.

Stephen Hinton is the Denning Family Director of the Stanford Arts Institute.

[This article originally appeared in the January 2013 issue of Stanford Live magazine.]