Music interview: Jonathan Mills on how brilliant acoustics are the starting point for Edinburgh’s new concert space

Jonathan Mills PIC: Jane Barlow
Jonathan Mills PIC: Jane Barlow
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On Tuesday, Edinburgh folks can see for themselves what impact the planned new concert hall at 36 St Andrew Square, at the east end of the architecturally-sensitive New Town, is likely to have on their lives, their city and its cultural future. Barely a year on from the welcome announcement that a new music and performance arts venue, currently known as the IMPACT Centre and primarily a home for the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, is to be built behind the iconic Royal Bank of Scotland building, David Chipperfield Architects’ creative plans will be on show at an onsite public consultation exhibition, which runs from 3pm to 7:30pm. The big question is: can Edinburgh get right what so many cities and towns around the world have got so drastically wrong, in their attempts to create new concert halls that sound as good as they look?

Look at New York, whose decision last month to shelve the refitting of the 1960s Lincoln Centre auditorium in favour of a new build within the exiting shell, proves once again that, where acoustics matter, you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.

The advisory board behind Edinburgh’s much-needed 1,000-seater auditorium really wants to get it right. Among them is Sir Jonathan Mills, former director of the Edinburgh International Festival, and now with a lot more time on his hands to help drive things in the right direction. Interestingly, he reminds me, he also has a degree in architecture.

“I was very interested in the idea of environmental acoustics; the idea that we use sound as a primary generator of how we design,” he says. “At the moment buildings are too often designed for their visual impact and then redesigned for their acoustic profiles. My field isn’t specialised in this, and I would never put myself forward as an acoustician.”

Enter a man who would: Dr Yasuhisa Toyota of Nagata Acoustics, the acoustical brains behind Frank Gehry’s Walt Disney Hall in Los Angeles and the highly-praised Elbephilharmonie in Hamburg, whose role in the Edinburgh project is remarkable for the fact he was chosen before anyone else in the design team was appointed, even the architect.

And this is key: Toyota played a leading role in choosing the team that will make it possible, as Mills puts it, “to build from the inside out rather than the outside in. Dr Toyota put two things absolutely at the core of his requests of us: one was experience, the other was collaboration.”

The architect that Toyota was instrumental in selecting is David Chipperfield, whose credentials for creating challenging designs sensitive to the surrounding environment are plain to see. “With an architect of such calibre, we have ample evidence of the way he has breathed new life into some of the heritage buildings of Berlin, particularly the Neues Museum Berlin. Dr Toyota will ensure Chipperfield understands the need to create, first and foremost, a superlative acoustic here in Edinburgh,” Mills insists.

The challenge, of course, is to achieve an acoustical solution that will suit the multi-purpose usage of the new hall, from the resident SCO to solo and chamber recitals, intimate early music to amplified contemporary. Can that be done without resorting to compromise or gimmicks?

“Acoustics are more flexible than they were 30 or 40 years ago, and I think one wants to make a distinction between a flexible acoustic configuration using an appropriate array of building materials, and what is often erroneously described as a multi-purpose hall,” says Mills.

The location is sensitive, primarily a commercial zone, but equally a part of Edinburgh’s jealously guarded New Town heritage. Thus the need for rigorous public consultation. “We need to make sure that any designs we propose are sensitive to the fact the site will be a public thoroughfare with multiple points of entry,” Mills says. “In other words a permeable public space, but one which has to be highly sensitive to the very considerable requirements of heritage and heritage listing.”

Many are asking if the new hall sounds the death knell of the Queen’s Hall. Mills says he doesn’t know. “What I do know is that it absolutely needs to reconcile its future. But that can be a positive thing. During the festival period the Queen’s Hall has a very wide range of music, particularly from the Fringe; maybe it’s in scoring some of those projects that it will identify its future.”

The case for the new project is, sentiment aside, a no-brainer, from both local and international perspectives. “There’s not been a new piece of cultural infrastructure in Edinburgh as a consequence of the Festival in its 70 year history,” says Mills. The time has come to remedy that. Just how can be judged by everyone on Tuesday. ■

The first drop-in public consultation exhibition for Edinburgh’s proposed new IMPACT Centre is at 36 St Andrew Square, 7 November, 3pm-7.30pm,