In Porto, Portugal: The celestial Casa da Musica makes an architectural statement

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The Casa da Musica is a contemporary building surrounded by more traditional architecture in Porto, Portugal. It was designed by Dutch-born architect Rem Koolhaas.

By Betty Gordon

© 2017 text and photos. All rights reserved.

Smack in the midst of the Boavista section of Porto, Portugal, is a formidable white concrete and glass building, the unusual shape of which has been variously described as “wonky cuboid,” “faceted” and “alien.”

The first attempts were from my guidebook; the second from the architect; and the third from our guide Ricardo, who encouraged us to embrace the idea of what happens when a “meteorite becomes part of the landscape.”

The contemporary building is the Casa da Música, designed by controversial Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas. It is home to the 94-member National Orchestra of Porto and three smaller groups, and opened in 2005.

It was to have been part of the celebration of Porto’s designation as a European Capital of Culture in 2001, but as so often happens, it wasn’t finished in time and took six years to complete. The original estimate was 30 million euros; it ended up costing 120 million euros.

From some angles, it does, indeed, look like something otherworldly has hovered, then decided to set down just west of the historic Rotunda da Boavista, anchored by a columned war memorial at its center and ringed by gardens. To say that it doesn’t fit in with the architecture of the working-class neighborhood would be an understatement.

Clearly, Rotterdam-born Koolhaas, winner in 2000 of the prestigious Pritzker Architecture Prize, among that profession’s highest honors, was thinking way outside the box. More like: The odder the angles the better.

In his mind, however, he and his firm, OMA (Office for Metropolitan Architecture) envisioned the “continuity and contrast” as “a positive encounter of two different models of the city.”

On one side, stairs leading to an entrance made me think of that scene in the film “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” when the ramp of the spacecraft folds down and skinny aliens meet Richard Dreyfuss et al. One could say the aliens’ tonal greeting and accompanying flashing illuminations were in effect music.

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A view of the Casa da Musica from another side.

Windows stretch across the upper levels on a shorter side of the building, but one can almost envision a starship captain using this as his viewing screen (or giant windshield) while rocketing through space.

In reality, this is the exterior glass wall of the Sala Suggia (see first photo), the grand auditorium that spans the second through fourth levels. It’s named after native daughter Guillermina Suggia (sometimes spelled Guilhermina; 1885-1950), a renowned cellist.

The auditorium, lauded for its excellent acoustics, can seat more than 1,200. Abundant natural light floods the shoe-box configuration and is said to be so bright that daytime musicians don’t need secondary illumination for their sheet music.

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An example of the corrugated glass that’s used in many spaces around the Casa da Musica. This view overlooks one of the secondary performance spaces.

“Generally glass and sound don’t mix,” Ricardo said, but in this space, they do because the windows are corrugated — think curtain-like waves, not flat panes — allowing vibrations to move freely.

Nordic pine plywood, gilded in some places, covers the ceiling and walls, another element to enhance the sound capabilities. The orchestra pit is absent, again a concession to precise acoustics. If an opera production requires a pit, four rows of velvet-covered seats can be removed.

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Sala Suggia, the grand auditorium, is where the National Orchestra of Porto performs. The 1,200-plus-seat space is known for its excellent acoustics. 

Rows of seats run the width of the auditorium and are unbroken by a center aisle. The seats slide back so that patrons entering and exiting can do so without having to climb over the already settled concertgoers or asking them to stand.

A smaller, multiuse performance space, known as Sala 2, can accommodate 300 seated and 650 standing. Angular spaces elsewhere are used for rehearsals, receptions, conferences and education. On weekends, even parents with babies as young as 1 year old are encouraged to bring their children and introduce them to music.

There are also two bars, a café, a restaurant (on the top floor) and underground parking.

In the fourth-floor VIP room, Koolhaas has drawn a parallel between his home country and Portugal, with both sharing a centuries-long history of making decorative tiles. Flat panes of glass comprise the exterior facade. The hand-painted tiles cover the ceiling and interior walls.

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The Dutch and Portuguese share a long history of decorative tile production. This Dutch aristocracy scene in the VIP Room on the fourth floor has a tile purposely placed upside down. 

One busy ceiling scene depicts the Dutch aristocracy having a leisurely al fresco meal, attended on their terrace by servants. Ricardo pointed out that one tile was purposely installed upside down, “a sign of the humility of the artist,” he said.

It’s contrasted by depictions of Portuguese women queueing for water, battles and former rulers.

This room is often the backdrop for photographs of visiting musicians, holding press conferences or small parties for record releases.

Visitors will know immediately that they’re in for a different architectural experience, whether they’ve stopped by to join the one-hour guided tour as I did one May morning, or come for a musical performance.

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Aluminum staircases are sleek and spare.

Instead of an open foyer, where concertgoers might congregate before heading to their seats, a set of shiny aluminum stairs beckons upward. The flow is circular and the decor “minimalistic because color is in the people,” Ricardo said.

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The black-and-white tiled roof terrace overlooks the Rotunda da Boavista (the war memorial is in the center-distance of the photo).

The roof terrace, a fine open space for an outdoor gathering or cocktail party, is composed of alternating black-and-white tiles set in a geometric pattern on the floor and ascending sides. It is recessed into the roof, not level with it. From one point, there is a excellent view of the rotunda and its column.

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Another view of the war memorial at the Rotunda da Boavista and the neighborhood around the Casa da Musica.

In an aerial photograph I found online, I can’t quite decide what shape the terrace is — maybe a stretched or exaggerated rhombus? In keeping with the space theme, the white tiles surrounding the terrace and making up the roof’s exterior evoke the heat shields that protected NASA’s space shuttles.

With limited time in Porto, my plans couldn’t accommodate attending a concert. But I’m sure it would have been an enjoyable experience at this striking venue.

Quick reference: Casa da Música, Avenida da Boavista 604-610, Porto. 9:30 a.m.-7 p.m. Mondays-Saturdays; 9:30 a.m.-6 p.m. Sundays and holidays. Tours in English: 10 and 11 a.m., 4 and 5 p.m. Tours in Portuguese: 11 a.m. and 2:30 and 4 p.m. Admission: 7.50 euros. Performances take precedent over visitors. Metro lines A, B, C, E and F to the Casa da Musica stop. http://www.casadamusica.com. For some excellent aerial photos of the building and neighborhood, plus more background and schematics, go to http://www.archdaily.com/619294/casa-da-musica-oma.

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