Love Letter to the Berlin Philharmonic

The iconic, gold-lamé covered, pentagonal music space celebrates its 50th birthday.
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Sir Simon Rattle conducts the Berlin Philharmonic (Wikimedia Commons)

BERLIN – Sir Simon Rattle, the conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic, raised his baton one Thursday night this October and set into motion the first chorus of Bach’s St. Matthew’s Passion.

The chorus, dressed in black, rose from the small wooden boxes on which they had been seated, genuflected in unison, and moved in a crawl toward another plain wooden box—Christ’s coffin—located behind Rattle’s back.

Then, the boys’ chorus emerged from the wings, walking directly in front of the first row of the audience, nearly brushing against their knees, continuing up a staircase. Their train then split— some went left, others right, others climbed into the outer reaches of the hall.

From the vantage point of the second row—which, due to architect Han Scharoun’s landmark design, is actually the first row—one saw Rattle at the stage’s center, the violin section at his left and the cellos and basses at right. An organ was positioned in the middle.

Monika Rittershaus

Anyone seated in the A, B, or C blocks would find himself peering across the orchestra at other audience members, who were seated in the E, F, G, H sections behind the musicians.

The Japanese ambassador’s wife, dressed in a pale pink kimono, sat in the first row of the E Block, which juts out over the orchestra. A German businessman from Hannover, who 15 minutes earlier had purchased the last remaining ticket for the sold-out affair (Seat 9, A Block, Row 2) locked eyes with a petite, red-haired chorus member just 10 feet in front of him and nearly at eye level. He strained to hold back tears. Then the choirboys, now assembled in their myriad places around the concert hall—dappled silently amid the audience and nearly forgotten— sang out in unison:

O Lamm Gottes, unschuldig

Am Stamm des Kreuzes geschlachtet

The businessman from Hannover deftly removed a tissue from his pocket, trained his eyes downward, and pressed his lids tight. A woman at his right, her eyes twinkling, turned 90 degrees in the businessman’s direction, looked up, and stared into the faces of a detached trio of choirboys standing in the E Bloc behind the Japanese ambassador’s wife. As the boys intoned Bach’s music into the chamber down below, Rattle turned again and craned his neck upwards in a circle encompassing the boy singers distributed throughout the hall—above, behind, left, and right of him.

This staging added a layer of intensity to a piece of music already brimming with emotion, but it also highlighted the Philharmonic’s unusual acoustics.

The customary way to perform this work by Bach is to place everyone on the stage together: the adult chorus on the left hand side, the children at right. But in Peter Sellars’ masterfully conceived 2010 version, which opened this month’s 50th anniversary celebration of the Berlin Philharmonic’s landmark building, the singers actually acted out the work, much as one would an opera.

***

Monika Rittershaus

German architect Hans Scharoun designed his philharmonic to fit into the no-man’s-land that had become post-war Potsdamer Platz. The Philharmonie was to sit at the edge of what would soon become West Berlin, in the Tiergarten park.

His design was revolutionary and controversial when unveiled in 1956. Its most vociferous critics said the swooping, curvaceous building would collapse. Conservative architectural voices found the design jarring and otherworldly. Many pushed for a rebuild along 19th-century lines.

Scharoun would have nothing of the sort. His exterior consisted of three superimposed, concentrically rotated pentagons covered in an iron, gold-lamé facade. Inside, he placed the orchestra in the center of the main interior pentagon, with the audience all around it.

The ambitious building became the crowning achievement of a career that only took off toward its end. 

Berlin Philharmonic

Scharoun stayed in Berlin during the war but was sidelined by the Nazis for his modernist style. He had become noted for buildings like his 1930s Haus Schminke, but its “international style” ran afoul of the prevailing, kitsch Heimatstil, and as a result, he struggled to find work.  

After the war, however, he regained popularity. Scharoun was living in the Eastern Sector of the city, and he was appointed by the Russians to lead their massive urban planning efforts. In 1956, at the age of 63, he submitted his design to replace the bombed-out philharmonic. The competition was secret—no names were on the submissions. Yet Scharoun actually lost the first round of the competition, according to Professor Eva-Maria Barkhofen, who manages Scharoun’s archive.

“They opened the envelope,” Barkhofen told me, “And they saw that Scharoun had only nine votes and the other architect had ten votes. Then it is told, a little bit like a fairytale, that they discussed 12 hours and came to the solution to have Scharoun in the first place.”

Scharoun won the second-round vote after Herbert von Karajan, the famous conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic, pressed the judges to choose Scharoun’s design.

The most singular and immediate characteristic that won over von Karajan and his orchestra was the building’s intimacy: no member of the audience would be more than 130 feet from the orchestra. This promised to make the musical experience communal in a way that no large space anywhere in the world had previously.

Fergus McWilliam, a veteran French horn player at the Philharmonic, noted that the first four rows of seats are nearly at eye level with the orchestra. This, he said, creates a sort of tension not found in other music spaces.

“When you are on stage,” McWilliam told me, “You are looking at half the audience. The other half of the audience is staring right at you, no matter what direction you look. This really does emphasize a sense of community.”

The Berlin Philharmonic is also one of the world’s most acoustically sound spaces. But it took some work to get there. Scharoun and his acoustics designer, Lothar Kramer, found that the building’s striking design affected its sound. To rectify this, they installed perforated plywood over the angled walls. They shaped the surfaces of the balustrades in a quasi-bottleneck arrangement to deflect sound back into the hall. They mounted Helmholtz resonators on the ceiling to modulate the absorption of certain frequencies. And later, they added the famous sound-reflecting sails—large fiberglass panels that hang above the orchestra and remind one of an Alexander Calder mobile. They were installed because the musicians said they couldn’t hear themselves playing.

The Chamber Music Hall (Andreas Levers/Flickr)

But what inspired Scharoun? According to Wilfried Wang, professor of architecture at the University of Texas at Austin and editor of a monograph on Scharoun’s work, Scharoun wanted to create a musical space that referenced organic forms like rolling hills and vineyards.

“He was very much interested in these landscape metaphors in order to describe the formal qualities,” Wang told me. “But the simple idea is music at the center, the conductor being the geometric center of the whole building. If you like, it’s a reversal of the panopticon. In a panopticon, one person is in control, watching everyone else. But here, the audience is watching the conductor and the orchestra.”

Scharoun’s influence can be seen in subsequent music spaces, like Jørn Utzon’s Sydney Opera House or Frank Gehry’s Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles. All of these spaces, Wang explained, represent a challenge to the conductor’s singular authority. In the case of the philharmonic, the seat arrangement also supports this tension—seats are grouped in blocks almost equal to the count to the number of musicians on stage.

“A complete orchestra consists of about 120 musicians,” Wang explained, “In the Philharmonie, each block of seats consists of 120 to 150 members of the audience. So, you get this kind of equivalence in number of distributed groups of people. This is wholly unlike this ‘undifferentiated mass’ seating system that classical auditoriums tend to have. And that was a very important aspect of Scharoun’s desire to break down the barriers between the musicians and the audience in order to create an equivalence of people’s presence in the space.”

Professor Kenneth Hamilton, who has written extensively on the history of classical musical performances, noted that Scharoun’s design looked to the past, to intimate Wilhelmine-era theaters, while also referencing science-fiction trends popular in the post-war period.            

For example, Hamilton says he sees a connection between Scharoun’s design and the futuristic concert hall featured in a 1937 movie about pianist Jan Paderewski.

“Moonlight Sonata, the film featuring Jan Paderewski, anticipated the Berlin Philharmonic with its jutting sections of the audience at different levels,” Hamilton told me.  

Hamilton thinks of the Berlin Philharmonic’s experience as “integrative and observational,” and says Scharoun’s seating arrangement creates situations where “people in the audience are like members of a film set in the performance experience.”

But in addition to its role in music history, the Berlin Philharmonic was a symbol for post-war Germany, morally bankrupt and spiritually depleted after the horrific post-1933 period.

“Scharoun was part of a group of architects after World War I who wanted to establish new symbols for the Weimar Republic,” Wang explained. “But, in the end, it took another war for that militaristic energy to be excised in Germany, before democracy could finally establish itself.”

Though Scharoun had started working on such symbols in the 1920s, it would take another 40 years until one would see completion in the form of his bright, yellow concert space.

That symbol is now a part of world music and architectural history. And on its 50th anniversary, German architects say the country must look to the Philharmonie as an inspiration for a new era of progressive architecture in Berlin—which they say too often turns to the 19th century for its architectural inspiration, rather than to the future. 

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Michael Scaturro is a reporter based in Berlin.

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