The Futuristic Concert Hall of Porto

With sharp contrasts and unusual choices, Casa da Música was especially designed to have a great visual impact.

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The city of Porto is not only about the old quarter and historical sights. Actually, what I love about Porto are its contemporary architectural designs, including this concert hall. The 12 storeys high building is placed in the middle of a square with no other major accent. The shape of a polyhedron-like meteorite stand in stark contrast with the classical architecture around it.

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Featuring a 1,238-seat auditorium bathed in daylight, this is the only concert hall in the world with two walls made entirely of glass. Architect Rem Koolhaas from OMA, author of the project, explains his choice:

The past thirty years have seen frantic attempts by architects to escape the domination of the shoe-box concert hall. Rather than struggle with the inescapable acoustic superiority of this traditional shape, the Casa da Música attempts to reinvigorate the traditional concert hall in another way: by redefining the relationship between the hallowed interior and the general public outside.

Casa da Música attempts to reinvigorate the traditional concert hall by redefining the relationship between the hallowed interior and the cityscape. The elevated grand auditorium has corrugated glass facades at either end that open the hall to the city and offer Porto itself as a dramatic backdrop for performances.

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Still several layers of curtains can be drawn to close off views or modulate the sound. The side walls are lined with plywood for warmth and resonance. A gilded dot matrix, created by enlarging the wood grain, adds a certain glamour to the space, complemented by the silvery velvet seats.

Besides the brand auditorium, conceived as a simple mass hollowed out end-to-end from the solid form of the building, Casa da Música also contains a smaller, more flexible performance space with no fixed seating, plus rehearsal rooms, recording studios, an educational area, a restaurant, terrace, bars, a VIP room, and a playground for children.

There is deliberately no large central foyer; instead, a continuous public route connects the spaces around the grand auditorium by means of stairs, platforms and escalators: the building becomes an authentic architectural adventure.

Innovative materials and colours are used throughout: as well as the unique curtain-like glass walls at either end of the grand auditorium, the walls are clad in plywood with enlarged wood patterns embossed in gold, giving a dramatic jolt in perspective; the VIP area has hand-painted tiles picturing a traditional pastoral scene, while the roof terrace is patterned with geometric black and white tiles; floors in public areas are sometimes paved in aluminium.

The spaces adjacent to the auditorium are built around the same central idea of transparency, as all the rooms are connected visually with double ribbed walls of glass that provide acoustic isolation. Each room has a name, like Cibermúsica for digital music or the Renaissance Room, and an assigned colour – green, purple or orange.


The VIP space

Above the main entrance, there’s the VIP space, the first room that one actually sees before entering the building, and its walls and ceiling are covered in blue tiles, telling stories of both Portugal and the Netherlands (the architect’s country) and of how design concepts and crafts skills were migrating around the Europe of the 16th century.

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The ceramic tiling has been popular in the Iberian peninsula for centuries, frequently used both on the inside and outside of buildings. The use in the region dates back to the moors, who invaded the Iberian peninsula in the 8th century and who, out of horror vacui or fear of the empty space, were decorating the walls of their buildings with colored ceramic tiles featuring intricate geometric patterns, some of which can still be seen on historic buildings in both Portugal and Spain.

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Moors left the Iberian peninsula still the locals continued using ceramic tiles on their buildings, and they still do to this day. Some facades can hardly be described as geometric, however, and here comes in the Delftware fashion that, somehow, also influenced the development of the Portuguese azulejos, or painted tiles with a tin glaze. Delftware was developed in the Netherlands during the 16th century, with blue pictures painted on white porcelain. Although today it’s probably the tableware that most people associate with Delftware, in fact ornaments and tiles were widely available too. Production developed in Middelburg and Haarlem in the 1570s and in Amsterdam in the 1580s. Much of the finer work was produced in Delft, but simple everyday tin-glazed pottery was also made in places such as Gouda, Rotterdam, Amsterdam and Dordrecht.

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The Dutch exported their Delftware worldwide, including, eventually, by the 17th century, to Portugal, where it found a ready and enthusiastic market. Fashions in ceramic tile decoration had already been through several changes in Portugal since the geometric patterns of the moors. In a gigantic cross-cultural collision catalyzed by ceramics, Delftware-style designs made the leap from tables in the Netherlands to walls in Portugal and, soon, the local artists took over the production of these blue-painted white ceramic tiles with tin glaze, creating outstanding works, such as the Porto iconic São Bento’s train station or Carmo Church. But that’s another story.


The Context of Casa da Música

In 1998, the cities of Porto and Rotterdam were chosen as European Capitals of Culture for 2001 and, in Porto, among other initiatives, the idea of a Casa da Música arose: a building of unique characteristics where music would have a home. And so, from 26 architectural applications coming from the invited Dominique Perrault, Norman Foster, Peter Zumthor, Rafael Moneo, Rafael Viñoly, Rem Koolhas, Toyo Ito, Álvaro Siza Vieira, Herzog and de Meuron or Zaha Hadid, among others, the striking project of Rem Koolhaas / OMA was chosen.

This new concert hall was to be positioned in the historical centre, in Rotunda da Boavista. OMA chose not to articulate the new concert hall as a segment of a small scale circular wall around the Rotunda da Boavista but to create a solitary building standing on the new, more intimate square connected to the historical park of the Rotunda da Boavista and enclosed by three urban blocks. With this concept, issues of symbolism, visibility and access were resolved in one gesture. Through both continuity and contrast, the park on the Rotunda da Boavista, after our intervention, is no longer a mere hinge between the old and the new Porto, but it becomes a positive encounter of two different models of the city.


I visited Casa da Música with a guided tour. The ticket costs €10 and also offers entrance to Serralves Museum.


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