Swiss symphony: Andermatt concert hall by Studio Seilern Architects

In the small alpine town of Andermatt, Studio Seilern Architects has crafted a world-class, problem-solving concert hall

Words by: Veronica Simpson

Sometimes good things come from very inauspicious beginnings. Asked to transform an underground concrete conference centre into a world-class small concert venue, at the back of a hotel in the Swiss Alps that had already begun construction, and with only one and a half years in which to design and build it, many architects would run a mile. Christina Seilern of Studio Seilern Architects is clearly made of sterner stuff. On a June evening this summer, as the Berlin Philharmonic finished its inaugural programme of Mozart and Shostakovich in the new Andermatt Concert Hall, to rapturous applause, the expression on Seilern’s face — and that of her client — indicated that all the challenges were worth it.

The Andermatt Concert Hall announces its presence gently, with a single-storey glazed pavilion on the central public square, Piazza Gottardo, of this small Swiss Alpine town. Suspended inside the curved glass facade are three plexiglass discs, shaped like floating clouds. Their presence is both for acoustic attenuation and sculptural impact — at night, even with no performance going on, they are gently lit to animate the square, as public art. While concerts are under way, any passerby can come right up to the structure and gaze in through the curved windows, enjoying the spectacle.

A narrow, curving foyer is defined by a faceted wall of opaque acrylic panels resembling a golden glacier. Credit: Kanipak Photography

To reach the auditorium one descends into the earth, via a wide staircase, accessed either from the adjacent Radisson Blu Hotel Reussen or from its own discrete entrance. En route, guests are treated to a balcony view of a narrow but glamorous, curving foyer, its interior wall a faceted vertical landscape of opaque acrylic panels — as shiny as a golden glacier. And then the big surprise: entering from either the basement or mezzanine level the auditorium opens around you in a sculptural, expansive, horizontal and vertical sweep of origami-esque wood panels, a complex geometry designed for the ultimate acoustic experience.

From the central stage, the sound sweeps around in waves, up the main hall, over the balcony and off the sides, enveloping the audience and the orchestra in perfectly modulated tones (thanks to acoustic consultant Kahle Acoustics). It’s a full-on sensory experience, when daylight from the hall’s high glazing washes over these pale, grooved, oiled oak panels, bounces off the plexiglass clouds and bathes both musicians and music lovers in sound and light. The experience of listening to music here, as the sun sets over the mountains, is quite extraordinary — when it’s the Berlin Philharmonic, dubbed ‘the Rolls Royce of orchestras’, even more so.

Daylight from the hall’s high glazing (where passersby can peer in) floods the space. Credit: Roland Halbe

This is not just a new, world-class concert hall in the Swiss Alps — it is actually the only major concert hall in the Swiss Alps. It is a pivotal element in the strategy to transform this town back into the tourist and trading destination it first aspired to be, in the 19th century as Europe’s leisured classes embraced first the alpine spa, and then skiing, exploiting Andermatt’s strategic plateau position in the heart of the Saint-Gotthard Massif range. Served by three alpine passes, it is a major crossroads connecting landlocked Switzerland to its European neighbours, aided by strong road and rail connections. Andermatt was in fact the first town to have a Grand Hotel.

But after the Second World War, when Switzerland decided it needed its own army — just in case its allies reneged on their promise of protection — it became a strategically advantageous location for a military base, with 100,000 Swiss troops stationed there annually, served by a town of just over 1,000 people. Who needed ski tourism? Soon Zermatt and other Swiss resorts had far outpaced this town in terms of tourist facilities, despite the charms of its old buildings. However, come the end of the Cold War, Switzerland no longer needed such an army; come the digital revolution, land forces became less important, and the army began a phased withdrawal of troops, which completed at the end of the 1990s. By 2005, the town’s economy and morale were at rock bottom, which is when the regional Uri government invited Egyptian property developer Samih Sawiris to come up with some ideas.

Andermatt is situated in the heart of the Saint-Gotthard Massif range in Switzerland

Sawiris immediately saw the town’s potential to become a high-quality, year-round tourism destination. Given 100ha of land to play with, he formed a development vehicle, Andermatt Swiss Alps, joined forces with commercial developer Besix Group, and set about masterplanning a new district, Andermatt Reuss, next to the old town. When finished, it will boast an 18-hole golf course as well as multiple hotels and apartments. It kicked off its reinvention in 2013, with the opening of the super-luxurious Chedi Andermatt hotel (by architect Jean-Michel Gathy) in the old town, and now there are several chunky, chalet-esque apartment blocks (which can be owned and resold by foreign nationals — something Switzerland rarely allows) surrounding the concert hall’s host hotel, The Radisson Blu. Up to 42 of these apartment blocks are planned overall (comprising 500 apartments in total) for this new district, and options for a select cluster of 25 or so private luxury villas alongside.

Sawiris has a track record for thinking big. He is currently transforming a former desert on the edge of Egypt’s Red Sea into a high-end, sustainable tourism hotspot, masterplanned along Venetian lines with canalfront living; one of the highlights is a floating, colonnaded conference and cultural complex, complete with concert hall, also designed by Studio Seilern.

The stage takes a central position in the space, with the audience wrapped around. Seilern consulted orchestra members on optimal layouts. Credit: Monika Rittershaus

Seilern first heard about Sawiris’ Andermatt concert hall plans when he asked her if she knew of an acoustician. She had just finished an elegant performance centre for Wellington College in the UK and had been involved in multiple performance venues, such as Leicester’s Curve Theatre, while she was running Rafael Viñoly’s London office, prior to setting up her own practice. ‘I had no idea he was planning a concert hall, at the time. But I said I’d give him an acoustician if he gave me a job,’ she says. So he showed her the basic concrete shell of the underground conference centre that had already been constructed at the back of the Radisson Blu Hotel Reussen.‘The first thing we had to convince him about was the size,’ says Seilern. ‘It was only adequate for a small chamber programme.’

Seilern is clearly very well connected, and a serious music lover. She asked Sawiris to join her in Berlin to see the new Pierre Boulez Saal, Frank Gehry’s intimate performance space in the round that is part of the Barenboim-Said Akademie and which Seilern regards as one of the finest new performance spaces in Europe. When there, they met with the acoustician, Yasuhisa Toyota, lead consultant on Hamburg’s Elbphilharmonie and foremost representative of the world-famous Nagata Acoustics. Says Seilern: ‘We met Yasu, and he said to us: “I don’t work on halls that are less than 12m high, so unless you give me 12m I’m not interested in this job.” So that was a very big point. Then [Daniel] Barenboim walks into the meeting and at that moment, I think even Samih was impressed.’

The concert hall announces its presence in the town with a single-storey glazed pavilion on the central square, Piazza Gottardo

With the client convinced about height, Seilern knew she could achieve her idea of lifting the roof of the hall up and creating the aforementioned glazed pavilion; existing planning permission already allowed for one storey above ground level.

With Barenboim, legendary first conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic, in the room, Seilern decided to broach the subject of moving the stage to a more central position — away from the more logical ‘shoebox’ position that the concrete bunker’s dimensions suggested (an oblong format, with the audience stacked in rows facing the stage). Says Seilern: ‘There had been a lot of scepticism about that because everybody knows the shoebox format. People asked me: “Why are you changing this, are you trying to be interesting?” I said it’s not about being interesting, it’s about the intimacy and sitting close to the musicians and the relationship with the audience.’ She knew Barenboim would support her view, as his Saal places the orchestra in the middle with the audience all around. So she asked him for feedback: ‘He said: “Music is not linear, music is circular. It goes everywhere. Therefore you have to put the music in the middle of the audience.” Those were two very useful strategic comments,’ she says.

Flexible seating means the concert hall capacity can range from 455 to over 700. Credit: Kanipak Photography

The Berlin Philharmonic, in fact, seems to have played a crucial role at several key points in the gestation of this new hall. One final intervention was when Seilern consulted the orchestra members about audience numbers. With the stage reconfigured within the concert hall’s original footprint, that left the audience space compromised. She says: ‘We asked for their opinion and they said: “If the hall doesn’t have a certain number of rows in front of us we can’t play. We can’t have an orchestra playing in front of six rows.”’ This helped her to win the argument for a mezzanine balcony wrapping around the space, doubling the audience to around 455 with a full symphony orchestra of 75 musicians — and over 700 with a smaller, chamber ensemble, when the lower level retractable seating can be rolled out.

However, this change meant further amendments to the existing structure. Overall, the original footprint of the conference centre has changed radically, with the hotel exterior brought in by an additional few metres to give more space — and therefore impact — to the new entrance and glazed pavilion. A complete re-engineering programme had to be devised to accommodate these adjustments. With no time or funding left to dig different foundations (on mountainous terrain, foundations are extremely expensive), the rear of the auditorium has had to be hung off the back of the hotel foundations, via an innovative ‘backpack’ structure.

Seilern sees the use of wood as a response to the alpine context and vernacular. Credit: Roland Halbe

With all this fine tuning and reconfiguring in mind, the 1,764 sq m Andermatt Concert Hall clearly offers a lot for its CHF11m (£8.8m) budget. Given that ingenious solutions often arise from dealing with impossible constraints, I ask Seilern if she would ever have designed something like this — especially its modest entrance, and underground concert hall — from scratch. ‘No,’ she replies, ‘because first of all the foyer is too small. There are certain things that we couldn’t help. There was nothing we could do about it. But it’s like my favourite quote of DH Lawrence, which he said about writing: “Sometimes you have to stop trusting the author and trust the story and see where it takes you.” And that’s it. You do research and you don’t know where it will take you. That first sketch that I showed to Samih is very different to what we have now, but the main idea was there from the very beginning. The story unfolds itself as you discover things.’

But she agrees she couldn’t have asked for a better reception — or more auspicious opening, graced by the Berlin Philharmonic. She also concedes that none of this would have been achieved without deploying her strong powers of persuasion, but adds: ‘I have a very supportive client. He is an extraordinary client. For a good project you need a strong client.’ What elements, I ask, is Seilern most satisfied with in the finished building? ‘I think the lightness, the surprise — and the joy, when I first walked in,’ she says. ‘You see it on renderings and it’s never the same. And I always think these renderings are such lies. It’s now all about this image-making architecture, which is heartbreaking.’

Suspended from the ceiling and visible from outside are three plexiglass discs, shaped like floating clouds, designed both for acoustic attenuation and sculptural impact. Credit: Kanipak Photography

Given her stated ambitions to create architecture that speaks of place and deploys the best contemporary design principles in a way that is culturally and aesthetically in tune with the setting, what does she think connects this structure in this mountainous landscape? ‘I think the use of wood, all of that is very alpine. And the colouring of the building — it very much melds with the village. We didn’t want to make a huge architectural statement, because it would have been silly. It’s a little pedestrian street. There’s going to be another hotel right next door. We wanted to do something quite discreet up there and have these clouds and evoke the elements. It’s connecting with the village and connecting with the atmosphere. However, this is also a cultural building, so because of that we can make it a bit more fun.’

Nevertheless, she had to fight to keep the pavilion’s voluptuously curved glazing (square is so much cheaper). ‘There were months of discussions about that,’ she says. How did she convince them? That came down to Sawiris: ‘Samih always says you don’t spoil the suit by cutting out the last ingredient.’

This article was originally published in Blueprint issue 365. You can buy a copy here, or subscribe to Blueprint

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