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Case Study: Zaha'a Music Hall

World-renowned architecture firm captures the brilliance

ANALYSIS, Design

Everyone involved in the industry knows Zaha Hadid. The organic elegance with which her designs flow and undulate is unmistakable. The controversy that surrounds her projects is well-documented and her reputation for fiercely following her vision—despite the criticism—is legendary.

Grabbing recent headlines for winning competitions to design the 450,000m² Cairo Expo City as well as the city’s 525,000m² Stone Towers development, Zaha Hadid Architects (ZHA) continues to make architectural waves in the region.

But, aside from the pomp and circumstance of the high-profile projects and provocative designs, ZHA and Hadid herself are often overlooked for the simple beauty of some of their smaller-scale projects.

One such project is a chamber music hall ZHA designed for a little-known international festival in Manchester, UK. Held from July 2-19, according to its website, the Manchester International Festival is a biennial festival of art, which celebrates new and original works from across the spectrum of performing arts, music, visual arts and popular culture.

‘Frozen music’
ZHA’s Chamber Music Hall is a bespoke design inspired by the complexity of the music of Johann Sebastian Bach, which was created to house solo performances of his music.

Within the structure, a massive ribbon swirls throughout the room, carving out a spatial and visual response to the intricacies of Bach’s harmonies.

According to transcripts of an interview with ZHA, “As the ribbon careens above the performer, cascades into the ground and wraps around the audience, the original room as a box is sculpted into fluid spaces swelling, merging, and slipping through one another.”

The ribbon itself consists of a translucent fabric membrane articulated by an internal steel structure suspended from the ceiling. The surface of the fabric shell undulates in a constant but changing rhythm as it is stretched over the internal structure.

It varies between the highly tensioned skin on the exterior of the ribbon and the soft billowing effect of the same fabric on the interior of the ribbon.

“The design enhances the multiplicity of Bach’s work through a coherent integration of formal and structural logic,” says Hadid. “A single continuous ribbon of fabric swirls around itself, creating layered spaces to cocoon the performers and audience with in an intimate fluid space.”

Striving for clarity
The process of realising the design involved architectural considerations of scale, structure and—perhaps most importantly—acoustics to develop a dynamic formal dialogue inseparable from its intended purpose as a chamber music hall.

Pivotal to its function as an architectural feature and an acoustic enhancement is the performance of the ribbon. It was designed to simultaneously enhance the acoustic experience of the concert while spatially defining a stage, an intimate enclosure and passageways.

It exists at a scale in which it is perceived as both an object floating in a room as well as a temporal architecture that invites one to enter, inhabit, explore and experience.

Adding to the acoustic elements are clear acrylic panels which are suspended above the stage to reflect and disperse the sound. Programmed lighting and a series of dispersed musical recordings activate the space between the ribbon during non-performance times.

“The initial part of the design involved testing the baseline acoustic response of the gallery space and looking at how this could be enhanced by the installation,” explains Mark Howarth, partner acoustician at Sandy Brown Associates.

This included investigating how the finishes and shape of the room determined its reverberation time and caused unwanted flutter echoes from sound repeatedly reflecting back-and-forth between surfaces.

The measurements also identified the level of ambient noise from external noise sources, such as road and air traffic, and from air conditioning systems within the building,” explains Howarth.

While the location of the music hall was located towards the rear of the building—protected from the noisy metro trains near its entrance—controlling the subtle but relevant noise from the building’s HVAC system remained a challenge.

According to Howarth, the gallery has strict requirements for the regulation of air temperature and humidity to help preserve the precious works it houses, which meant turning it off, or even reducing it during performances, was not an option.

Behind-the-scenes collaboration between ZHA, Sandy Brown Associates and Manchester Art Gallery staff offered a suitable reduction in ambient noise.

Controlling reverberation
The music of Bach is known for its complexity and, as such, the way in which the notes are played and then travel from the instruments to the listener’s ear is of the utmost importance.

“For optimum conditions for chamber music it is important to ensure that the reverberation time is not too long as this blurs individual notes so music can lose its intricacy,” explains Howarth. “Equally it should not be too short as this provides a lack of response for the performer and causes the music to sound overly dry.”

To address this challenge, ZHA and Sandy Brown Associates looked for a design that would achieve a reverberation time of 1.4 to 1.7 seconds at mid-frequencies (500-1000 Hz) with a higher reverberation at lower (bass) frequencies to provide what acousticians call a “warm room” response.

Specifically, ZHA researched different materials for the installation—including myriad fabrics, metals and plastics—which were then developed into CAD models and imported into acoustic modelling software by Sandy Brown Associates.

Measurements in the room indicated the existing ceiling and the large void behind it provided a significant amount of acoustic absorption. According to Howarth, “[This space] influenced the choice of materials for the installation as the designers wanted to avoid adding too much additional sound absorptive material to ensure the acoustics did not become too dry.”

The intangibles
The design process, while painstaking, enabled the investigation of different finishes and sculptural shapes to enhance acoustic conditions around the stage and extending into the audience areas.

As Alex Poots, director of the Manchester International Festival of Music suggests, the value of the structure lies not just in its architectural and acoustic brilliance, but also in the experience the structure brings to its users.

“ZHA consistently came up with challenging and innovative ideas,” explains Poots. “It has been wonderful to see the realisation of this project and experience such intimate performances from the concert musicians within it.”

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