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Culture

50 years of Berlin's Philharmonic hall

The Berlin's Philharmonic's tent-like appearance has made it a favorite venue for musicians and listeners alike. This year, Hans Scharoun's world-famous concert hall celebrates its 50th birthday.

It wasn't just a coincidence that principal conductor Herbert von Karajan selected Ludwig van Beethoven's famous Symphony No. 9 - a musical symbol of liberty around the world - for the inauguration of the Berlin Philharmonic. Indeed, the highly dramatic orchestral work gave him the perfect opportunity to literally play to the gallery: with the stage at the center of the concert hall, many in the audience could actually watch conductor Karajan's facial expressions.

The architect Hans Scharoun's famous design made such orchestral staging - the first of its kind - possible. Sharoun's innovative concert hall for the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra would become a model for concert venues around the world.

A break with tradition

With the development of middle-class music culture in the 19th century, all major concert halls were built according to the same design: they were rectangular, with a raised orchestral platform at one end and space for the audience at ground level in front of it. A prime example of such a design is Vienna's Musikverein, where New Year's concerts are played to this day.

Interior of Berlin's Philharmonic (Photo: Soeren Stache / dpa)

Architect Hans Scharoun carved out a new path

Berlin's old, pre-war Philharmonic hall was also designed in the same style, but was destroyed by British bombers on January 30, 1944 - the 11th anniversary of Adolf Hitler becoming chancellor.

But architect Han Scharoun's designs for a new Philharmonic concert hall on the southern edge of Berlin's Tiergarten, which he presented in 1956, made a radical break with tradition: rather than the former long rectangular shape, he concocted an asymmetrical tent-like design for his hall, placing the formerly isolated orchestral stage smack in the middle - like in an arena - with tiered levels for audience seating all around.

Squabble over new design

Scharoun, who was born in 1893, was one of the leading figures of the Neues Bauen or Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivitiy) movement during the 1920s.He worked, among others, with Bauhaus architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, primarily designing residential buildings.

The new Berlin Philharmonic concert hall was Scharoun's first design for a cultural institution. In describing his unusual concept, the architect commented: "It's surely no coincidence that people nowadays, just as they have throughout history, form a circle when they hear improvised music somewhere. It had to be possible to transfer this natural process, which anyone can understand both from a psychological and a musical point of view, to a concert hall. Both optically and spatially, music should take center stage."

Herbert von Karajan (Photo: dpa /COLORplus)

Conductor Herbert von Karajan

Sailing away to the perfect sound

Principal conductor of the Philharmonic Herbert von Karajan was thrilled with Scharoun's idea. But others, like composer Paul Hindemith, were skeptical. West Berlin-based music critic Werner Oehlmann was particularly harsh in his criticism of the acoustic aids in the concert hall. "Just as theater-goers do not want to be able to see the stage lights, not every concert-goer wants to reminded, by way of a 'visible construction,' that the miracle of sound is a matter of physics and science."

Exterior view of the Philharmonie (Photo: picture alliance)

Scharoun's Philharmonic hall is distinctive from all sides

What Oehlmann meant by "visible construction" was a huge sound reflector, which one of Scharoun's assistants, acoustician Lothar Cremer, had installed like an awning over the orchestra stage. Smaller reflectors placed around the sides were supposed to evenly distribute the sound throughout the hall. The results of the construction amazed audiences and critics alike, but they weren't quite perfect. Karajan thus continued to use the Church of Jesus Christ in Dahlem for recordings with his Philharmonic musicians until the beginning of the 1970s, while he and Cremer worked on perfecting the Philharmonic hall's acoustics. By then, Scharoun's masterly design had long become a source of inspiration for other architects.

A favorite among soloists

The hall would also become a favorite venue of countless renowned soloists and orchestras, who love to perform in the "arena" at the distinctive "Circus Karajani", as the venue is known in Berlin. Not only do they appreciate the acoustics, they relish being in the middle of the audience.

Chamber music hall in Berlin (Photo: picture alliance)

The chamber music hall is next door to the Philharmonic

Berlin's new Philharmonic was also not to be the only building Scharoun would design and construct at Kemperplatz: in 1967, he began construction on the library known as the "Staatsbibliothek der Stiftung Preußischer Kulturbesitz." In addition, in 1987, 15 years after Scharoun's death, Edgar Wisniewski implemented the architect's design for a chamber music hall next to the Philharmonic, that had been long in the planning. Both of these distinctive buildings reflect Scharoun's notion of "building organically." The Berlin Philharmonic would become Scharoun's trademark around the world.

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