Architecture of sound: interview with Tomasz Konior

How the „Symfonia” building influenced a designing process of the new seat of the National Polish Radio Symphony Orchestra in Katowice, what is a „vineyard” configuration, how to test a 4,5-tons acoustic model? Answers for these and other questions are given by Tomasz Konior, architect, founder of Konior Studio and head designer of the NPRSO’s seat.

© Konior Studio; Grand concert hall of the NPRSO's seat
© Konior Studio; Grand concert hall of the NPRSO's seat

Konior Studio is the author of the „Symfonia” building of the Academy of Music in Katowice. How we can set the project against the new seat of the National Polish Radio Symphony Orchestra being designed at present?

Each project is different. However, very important was the experience connected with “Symfonia” as a building integrated in the urban context and which serves very well as a public space, point of meetings. The second thing was the experience gained while designing a music space. “Symfonia”, as well as the NPRSO’s seat, was an experiment. It is the first building in Poland where acoustics are regulated. The difference is that when we were designing “Symfonia” we did not know the threads. Obviously, we recognize some faults now, but the building is appreciated by artists and music lovers, the best musicians record here. And there is another aspect – people whom I met while creating “Symfonia”. This project prepared us to design NPRSO as an advanced space for music and a great example of city creation.

Nevertheless, NPRSO is a different scale project.

Indeed, this is a completely different scale. “Symfonia” is four time smaller than the grand concert hall of NPRSO. The difference defines the way in designing buildings destined for music. There are a lot of experiences connected with halls set out for less than one thousand spectators. But designing process of concert halls exceeding one thousand seats is a very serious, complicated and sometimes unpredictable issue. That is why looking for technology or tools to design such halls is so emphasized. Japanese are the most experienced in this regard. Thanks to theirs previous experiences we can be proud to apply the method of designing for the third time in Europe. At present, only two concert halls of this type are being prepared on the continent – this is “Elbphilharmonie” in Hamburg and Paris Philharmonic.

If these types of concert halls are hardly ever built, how did you tempt Nagata Acoustics to cooperate?

Japanese rarely work in with someone who they do not know. Krystian Zimerman, who I met while designing “Symfonia”, interested them in the project. The above-mentioned experiences paid dividends. He had arranged a meeting with Yasuhisa Toyota from Nagata Acoustics and then the adventure begun. The project had completely changed when our cooperation started. There is a philosophy of designing these type of large concert halls where no sound systems are installed. The Japanese specialists experiment with space where a scene is located in a central point of the hall and spectators seatings are around. The concept of our hall is something between a “shoe-box” and “vineyard” configuration. It determines originality of the project. We created some kind of mix of these two types of configurations, and the acoustics were tested on a model. It is a great challenge by itself because no one created such an acoustic model in Poland, this is for the third time in Europe and the tenth in the world.

But you made it. The model can be admired in Katowice right now.

The Stangel company decided to take this breakneck challenge. It was necessary to make up a wooden, stable and hermetic structure imitating the future, real concert hall. The model weighs more than 4,5 tons, a plafond is more than one ton and a half plus almost 1800 miniatures of audience members. We have to say that this is the smallest concert hall in Poland.

How the tests looked like?

This unique method needs tests carried out at least three time. At first, we need to pomp out the air from the 1:10 hermetic model, made of finishing materials which will be used in the actual hall, and pomp in the nitrogen to simulate real conditions inside. At each attempt, a simulated sound is recorded in several places inside the model. Results of the tests are saved on a computer, analyzed and then corrections are made in the initial model. If everything is all right, specialists finish the tests after three attempts. After a comparative analysis with other similar concert halls, which were also tested on acoustics models during design process and now are used by musicians and audience, the tests are summed up in a final report forming an integral part of the design documentation. There are all analyzes concerning a geometry of the grand concert hall, material solutions, several details or even characteristics of audience chairs. Our final report is already finished. We know what we can expect and it looks very optimistic. Nagata Acoustics will also supervise the construction work’s process and will “tune up” the hall at the very end. It is a huge undertaking for prime contractor too, as no one before built such a concert hall in Poland.

Can you explain what the mix of configurations is?

There are lots of smaller audiences in the „vineyard” configuration, which are located around the scene placed in a central point of a hall. However, an architectural contest guidelines said that the “shoe-box” configuration should be applied in the designed hall, where the scene is located at one side of the rectangular sound-box with a flat audience and shallow balconies. Expectations of the National Orchestra was the same. But my experiences connected with American and Japanese concert halls, and all analyzes conducted together with Krystian Zimmerman, made the only one suggestion – it has to be a concert hall integrated with the music – the “vineyard” configuration. This type of the hall has a specific atmosphere. It is unusual not only by the acoustics and its structure, but also thanks to a synergy between musicians and music lovers. Finally, an interesting and original compromise was reached. There will be a concert hall which is the mix of these two concepts. We made it – we got an element of integration but we use classical patterns at one time.

What will the interior and the building look like?

We applied very interesting architectural details in the project. Balustrade railings of the grand concert hall are made of sorrel-coloured elements manufactured using a technology called “birch-up”. Each element has its own geometry and is different, connected all together it will create a fold. A plafond will have an outer-space shape. Also we shown concern of a supreme quality of acoustics’ insulation, the building has to be soundproof. For example, if a helicopter comes over the grand concert hall, the noise will not be heard inside. Instead of new technologies applied, we wanted the building to be closely connected with the Upper Silesian identity. That is why we changed the original elevation’s project to this characteristic red Silesian bricks known from the Nikiszowiec district in Katowice. We were inspired by the red finishings on the window niches significant for the region. A brick and its red colour was used to create a music, rhythmic elevation. In addition, the elevation is very practical because pillars hide all noisy installations which might be burdensome for the building’s users. While the interiors are to tell us that we are not only in the Upper Silesia, in Poland, but also in the European Union. Part of Beethoven’s ninth symphony is an anthem of the EU. We decided to imprint part of the symphony on a raw, concrete elevation of the grand concert hall. Additionally, the elevation will be partly covered by a vertical garden. Thanks to a candidature of Katowice to the European Capital of Culture 2016’s title, we had a chance to cooperate with Patrick Blanc, a great botanic and landscape architect.

Will be there enough daylight for vertical gardens?

Yes. The building’ structure is based on an external, three-storey frame. This is the part where musicians will be working and theirs back rooms are going to be located there: rehearsal rooms, recording studios, dressing rooms. It will also house areas necessary to service visitors and music lovers. There will be an atrium inside this frame which encircles the grand concert hall – a beating heart of the building. And between the external frame and the heart, there is a glassy roof which provides the daylight.

Can you describe the buildng’s surroundings?

It is very important that the building will fit into the City’s character, integrate in the urban context and become a vibrant part of Katowice. We want the surroundings not only be a place of concerts and music but also a space intended for relaxation and education. We tried the space located between the buildings – as we are thinking about the Cultural Axis where another venues are going to be built – makes interesting, developed and rich in attractions. There will be both an amphitheater and square as well as “dancing” fountains in front of the NPRSO seat. Moreover, theme gardens will be created where everyone can play “boule” or with music toys. I hope it will create a colourful, synergistic, music world.

The acoustic model of the grand concert hall of the National Polish Radio Symphony Orchestra can be seen in the atrium of the “Altus” office building located at 13 Uniwersytecka St. in Katowice.