A new concert hall for London? The artistic case is clear, the political one less so

Hamburg’s new world-class public venue trumpets its host city to the world. London is already a beacon, and doesn’t need Simon Rattle’s dream hall in quite the same way

Last week Hamburg got a big one. Now Munich wants one. Paris, which got its own a couple of years ago, is already planning a second. Los Angeles has one. Manchester and Birmingham got theirs in the not-so distant past. London, however, has none.

Big cities like to build modern state-of-the-art concert halls. They build them partly for artistic reasons – because good music matters, because a top-notch hall can offer top-notch performing and rehearsal conditions, excellent acoustics, exciting public spaces, flexibility to accommodate different repertoire and be a draw for performers and audiences.

But big cities like to build concert halls for political reasons too. To attract attention. To build their brand. To make a statement. To embody their values. To excite their citizens. To memorialise themselves. And because they can.

In one sense, a decent enough concert hall in a big enough city is a policy no-brainer. Big cities with orchestras, or that wish to attract visiting orchestras, have to give them somewhere to play. If you build it, they will come. If you don’t, they won’t.

Sir Simon Rattle and the London Symphony Orchestra squeeze a staging of Pelléas et Mélisande into London’s Barbican Hall.
Sir Simon Rattle and the LSO squeeze a staging of Pelléas et Mélisande into London’s Barbican Hall. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

That’s where Sir Simon Rattle’s case for a new London concert hall starts. London has two concert halls already, but neither ticks all the 21st-century boxes. The Royal Festival Hall now relegates classical music in favour of being a cultural drop-in centre. When they built the Barbican Hall in the 1970s they omitted to include an organ or room for a chorus or a very large orchestra.

Even Rattle admitted this week that a new London hall was very much “an if not a when”. Rattle’s case is rooted in artistic need. The political case, by contrast, is trickier. Justifying the cost, the priority, the location and the way it will be used are all delicate tasks, and always have been. But the decline of the public realm, public sector austerity and inequalities between rich London and the neglected regions add layers of extra sensitivity.

Hamburg’s Elbphilarmonie was given a razzmatazz opening this month, attended by Germany’s president and chancellor.
Hamburg’s Elbphilarmonie was given a razzmatazz opening this month, attended by Germany’s president and chancellor. Photograph: Ralph Larmann

Hamburg’s hall, which opened last week, is both a pacesetter and a warning. The new venue beside the river Elbe is a gloriously ambitious building, stretching high into the sky, starting on the ninth storey of an old brick-built dockside warehouse, and containing two halls, extensive educational spaces and a public plaza commanding a vista across the city. But it cost an eye-watering €866m (£747m), of which €789m was provided by Hamburg taxpayers, took 14 years to build, came close to bankrupting the city and remains highly controversial.

The Elbphilharmonie, however, has two exceptionally clear public purposes. First, it is beacon to attract visitors, commerce and attention to a major city that, like Glasgow, Chicago, Turin or Lyon, isn’t on many people’s 100-places-to-see-before-you-die list, even though, like these others, it ought to be. Second, as a publicly owned civic good, even if a very expensive one, the hall is a statement that music is important and that music is for everyone. Hamburgers’ response to it, still hostile in some cases, now seems overwhelmingly proud and positive, though it is early days.

Neither of these points is remotely true in relation to London. London is already a beacon. Money and people come to London for multiple reasons, but the desire to attend some of its many concerts is unlikely to top the list in most cases, though it’s not a disincentive. London is already both a global city on a higher rung than Hamburg, and a capital city, which Hamburg is not.

A new hall might benefit many Londoners, but it would not be a publicly owned civic good the way Hamburg’s is. Neither the UK government nor Sadiq Khan’s City Hall administration would dream of financing such a thing, even if they could. If it is ever built, the new hall will be privately funded and placed in the heart of the richest square mile in Europe, the City of London, not in a part where a large number of people live, work or go out in the evening.

It would be wonderful to think this might change. But it won’t. Britain lacks both a shared culture and a desire for one. In many ways it is drifting apart. German belief in the importance of the arts, exemplified by Angela Merkel’s regular attendance at concerts and the opera, has no UK equivalent. Last year, Theresa May’s government withdrew even the £5m that George Osborne had earmarked for a new hall business plan.

It isn’t just the past that’s another country. It’s also the republican Gemeingeist — or communal spirit — on which Hamburg has prided itself, not always accurately, it must be admitted, for so long and which is now embodied in the hall by the Elbe.


Martin Kettle

The GuardianTramp

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