Site and Sound is a book about opera houses and concert halls — old and new, but mostly new. What makes it particularly interesting for Taiwan readers is that it describes new performance venues currently under construction in Taipei and Taichung, the former in some detail.
Taipei itself is described here as a “city of vitally active theater, where stage directors are cult heroes.” The new Taipei Performing Arts Complex, being built at Shilin, and due to be finished in 2015, is soberly appraised. Its most unusual feature is that its three performance venues are located back-to-back, with technical controls for all three contained in a single cube wedged between them. Two of these spaces can be combined to make an extra-large venue for special events.
When construction began earlier this year, Dutch architect Rem Koolhaus was on hand to point out the new building’s distinctive features. Here he’s quoted as dismissing, “in his usual provocative mode,” much recent work in the field as simply the re-building of traditional halls under seemingly innovative exteriors. He points, for example, to the 2007 National Center for the Performing Arts in Beijing, which also has three performance spaces, as simply repeating everything three times with no additional effect.
By contrast Taipei, which must of course better Beijing on all possible fronts, will have a genuinely original complex that Koolhaus calls a “machine” or “engine,” with various different approaches, a new night market underneath it, a spectacularly-located coffeehouse on the roof open to non-ticket-holders, as well as the versatile performance venues themselves.
This book, however, wisely implies that the possibilities for performance venues have long ago been explored, and that the ancient structures, such as the Ancient Greek amphitheaters or the 18th and 19th century opera-houses, can’t in reality be greatly improved on. The Dutch may believe otherwise, and Taipei is happy to go along with their progressive optimism, but only time will tell to what extent these hopes are actually realized.
SITE AND SOUND
By Victoria Newhouse
The Monacelli Press
One thing that can be said in favor of the new Taipei structure is that its three venues aren’t too large. Audiences are unanimous in feeling that the closer to the stage they are the better, and, apart from arrangements where performances are in the center with spectators on all four sides, the only way universal proximity to the stage can be guaranteed is with modestly-sized auditoriums. And the biggest of the three new theatres will hold only 1,500 spectators, with the other two holding 800 each. This compares favorably with the National Concert Hall, which has seating for 2,074.
Of course there are the twin issues of how many more performance acts Taiwan will be able to spawn to make use of these new spaces, and how many extra spectators will show up to fill them. These are unanswerable questions. But one thing is certain — if a ticket-price war results to entice the public to the new complex, or back to the old ones, then the public will be the beneficiary. Ticket prices in Taipei have always been unduly high.
As for Toyo Ito’s Metropolitan Opera in Taichung, this book considers that the concave shapes of all three of its venues are “exactly what acousticians try to avoid,” with the outcome being as a result “especially unpredictable.” Toshiko Fukuchi of Nagata Acoustics Inc (who has kindly answered some questions for the purposes of this review) has said that a doughnut-shaped sound reflector will hang under the opera house ceiling. In addition, the architects have adjusted some of the interior shapes, added convex surfaces here and there, and made provision for the use of some rough, uneven materials, all in the interests of better acoustics based on a one-tenth scale acoustical model.