New concert & cultural halls in times of climate change
On 5 – 6 December Jasper Parrott attended the Eurasia Festival in Yekaterinburg and spoke at the associated symposium entitled ‘Towards a New Philharmonic Hall’. The symposium centred around discussions for a brand-new philharmonic complex in Yekaterinburg designed by Zaha Hadid Architects, to be completed in 2023, the year of city’s 300th anniversary. The symposium included other speakers such as Sverdlovsk Philharmonic Director Alexander Kolotursky, Christos Passas from Zaha Hadid Architects, Matthias Naske (CEO and Artistic Director of Wiener Konzerthaus), and Christoph Lieben-Seutter (CEO Elbphilharmonie).
The Eurasia Festival’s closing concert featured Ural Philharmonic Orchestra with their Chief Conductor (and Festival’s Artistic Director) Dmitri Liss, and Pierre-Laurent Aimard playing Bartók’s Piano Concerto No.2 and Turangalîla-Symphonie on his second ever visit to Yekaterinburg.
Speech delivered by Jasper Parrott in Yekaterinburg, Russia, on 5 December 2019
“Over the last two days it has been very interesting to learn so much from highly respected colleagues who are creators or managers of cultural buildings and who have devoted so much of their lives to the enrichment of cultural life, often in many different cities as their careers have evolved.
Nonetheless, perhaps because of the very long perspective which my 55 years of work in music and the arts as well as my by now ingrained habit of almost continuous travel around the globe over many decades have given me, I can perhaps make some observations about the challenges which I believe we all face today in all of the different areas of our work.
I suppose one could say that the post-World War II system of values and beliefs as incorporated in our music and arts structures and institutions has endured rather well until very recently and that, at least in the western, more developed parts of our planet, a shared belief in what many of us took to be established certainties has not only shaped our habits and attitudes but that these have spilled over and been adopted in many in other rapidly developing economies and societies — and most notably in China, Southeast Asia and the Middle East.
One of the hallmarks of the system has been the quite extraordinary proliferation of concert halls, opera houses, museums and performing spaces – I have heard it said that more have been built in the last 20 years than in the whole of the last two centuries worldwide.
What strikes me about this remarkable development is that the vast majority of these new venues are essentially updated versions of a 19 century concept and are updated versions of temples of high art for the middle classes adapted predominantly for secular purposes and often at vast public expense both to build and to run.
And whether we look at the many wonderful – and within our current frames of reference — successful examples such as Elbphilharmonie, Philharmonie de Paris, KKL Luzern, Zaryadye Moscow or the amazing new multi hall centre in Kaohsiung just to mention a few — and there are many other examples I could point to around the world – the story is more or less the same: these are halls built predominantly for mostly privileged sectors of society (and in Europe and in the US mostly for white and greying audiences) with more or less similar constructions whether shoebox or vineyard or horse-shoe opera theatre, many served up in extravagant, sometimes beautiful, but always extremely expensive monuments by brilliant star architects working closely with city politicians and property developers more concerned about short term glory than with any very coherent social or focused agendas.
The primary users of these halls may range from a well-established and well supported symphony orchestra or opera or theatre company, or they may seem to have been built as so often in China and in Japan, with as a public utility without any clearly defined purpose and with little popular access in ways which would enrich the lives and aspirations of wider sectors of the community.
As a result the outcome is usually the same: no deeply thought through vision of how such buildings can include at least some if not all of the following criteria:
• optimal acoustical and performance qualities
• the best potential for participatory experience for as wide a cross-section of the community as possible
• flexible facilities and resources that can be shared with academies, teaching institutions, collaborations among arts of different genres
• adaptability for new technology and communication
• the enrichment and social improvement of the local environment
• access and participation as widely and conveniently as possible to local communities
• the enhancement of green environments in urban spaces and the general embellishment of cityscapes and the reduction of mass transportation across large urban spaces caused by poorly distributed venues
Two general comments about London: the appalling ugliness and total lack of socially inclusive and cohesive cultural facilities in the huge luxury apartment and office developments throughout vast segments of the city are truly shocking.
On the other hand whereas I am naturally very much a supporter of what Simon Rattle, the LSO, Barbican and the Guildhall School, with the support from the City of London Corporation, are seeking to achieve in their efforts to build a new hall of a quality better fitting for a great city like London than what currently exists, I am also a critic of its location in that a great opportunity has been lost to mitigate the shocking situation whereby in about 85% of London’s urban landscape no important artistic institutions of the scale and quality of the Southbank and the Barbican halls has been established when these are in reality close neighbours serving similar communities.
Theoretically at least this worldwide expansion of the stock of venues costing in many cases hundreds of millions of euros should last for many decades if not centuries and some may even aspire to be the Parthenons or great cathedrals and historic palaces of our day — or will they end up instead as mausoleums or sepulchres of the future ?
Surely all of us in this room know that we are on the cusp of changes more enormous than any that societies have experienced for hundreds of years and certainly more acute than anything since the end of World War II.
And these changes will affect not only those of us who believe in the values of art and culture but also the lives of all of the billions who populate this planet and who will probably never go even once to a concert hall or museum or gallery.
There is surely no doubt that we live in the most turbulent, disrupted and unpredictable set of circumstances since 1945, not only politically and societally but more generally in our daily lives.
I will list just the five most obvious engines of change we are all facing:
• climate change
• political radicalisation and the growth of tribal nationalism
• the irresistible power of the cyber world and those who control it or manipulate it
• the incalculable impact of AI
• the ever accelerating and widening gap between the obscene levels of wealth of the few and the desperate conditions of poverty of the many, not only in terms of means adequate for a decent life but also of access to fundamental necessities like clean water, safety, education, equality of opportunity and freedom of expression
Of these threats climate change must be the most important not least because of the stupendous challenges all societies will face in the next 25 years but also because any mitigations that are still open to us are opposed by the most powerful vested interests around the world.
On the very simplest of levels if halls are built for orchestras or opera or theatre performances which require the regular presentation of top-level ensembles and performers from around the world how will these halls need to be adapted to meet the realities of a world which will need to live with the exigencies, demands and disciplines determined by conservation and carbon reduction not to mention mass migration? Why should we continue to invest so heavily in building halls and venues which may become redundant within the next 25 or 50 years with many already no longer fit for purpose?
Surely we need to bring together our expertise, our experience and our understanding of the longer term common good to think through much more coherently what will not only serve the best purposes of music and art and of the performances which are to be created within these spaces but what will also act as agora accessible to and shared with individuals and organisations dedicated to aspirational learning to participatory artistic and creative experiences and for the enrichment of the lives of a much wider section of society.
Very recently I had a very fascinating dream: I was sitting in a brand-new hall made up of multiple interlocking spaces separated one from the other by acoustically impermeable but totally flexible walls and dividers which with the flick of a switch could be flown up almost magically into the ceiling spaces of the halls so that the same building could serve not only the finest concerts of symphonic music or jazz but also a wide range of collaborations in every genre of music dance and theatre.
I am certainly no architect or engineer and this naive dream can probably be laughed off as the nocturnal ravings of someone who goes to too many performances.
Nonetheless it does suggest to me that with today’s extraordinary technology almost everything is possible provided that we begin to understand better some of the processes and opportunities we need to work on together if we are to keep faith with the idea that mankind’s individual and collective powers of imaginative and artistic creativity are the greatest assets we have not only for the conservation of harmonious and peaceful civil societies but also for saving the planet.
To end on a more pragmatic note here is my short list of requirements for the future:
• orchestras and all performing groups of ensembles should have at least two regular venues — one for their legacy repertoire and the other for experimental and innovatory work of all kinds
- as a concrete example when the Tonhalle Orchestra moves back to their great historic hall in 2021 they hope to retain their Maag interim hall for the cultivation of new audiences and for new work
• arts institutions should be cultural spaces open all day and every day welcoming citizens from all backgrounds ages and walks of life and as such should offer wide ranges of opportunities for learning and participatory activities, especially for children, young people and also for seniors — the Southbank Center and Barbican score well with these aspirations but most Asian halls very badly or not all
• different music and arts genres, ideally including an academy conservatory should share overlapping spaces and facilities — Helsinki’s Musiktali is an interesting example
• arts centres should have many different sized performing and rehearsal spaces to which an extended network of partner organisations should also have regular access
• centres should have secure and climate-controlled exhibition spaces and regular lecture series and literary and other debates with public participation : the interface of different creative genres brings added value to everyone
And lastly — but this must be a call to arms for another occasion — the music and arts communities around the world should raise their voices, take public and if necessary disruptive actions — we should learn from Greta Thunberg and from Extinction Rebellion — to insist with our political classes that music and the creative arts are not elitist luxuries but essential and urgent priorities for all of our societies.”