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Frozen music: Leon's new concert hall is an imaginative distillation of Iberian vernacular that forms not only a dignified space for music, but also enriches the urban realm.

Nestling at the foot of the Cantabrian Cordillera, Leon in northern Spain was an important stopping off point on the historic pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela. Countless pilgrims have passed through it and the old town still contains the built traces of their progress, notably the sixteenth-century monastery of San Marcos, now transformed into a luxurious parador hotel aimed at a rather different kind of traveller. Located on the edge of Leon's historic core, the monastery overlooks a plaza landscaped in starkly contemporary fashion that forms a place for sitting, strolling and the evening posseggiata. The weathered yellow stone of San Marcos has been joined by a more recent and unabashedly contemporary interloper, the gridded white concrete facade of the town's new concert hall on the south side of the plaza. Won in competition in 1994, the building was designed by the Madrid-based partnership of Luis Mansilla and Emillo Tunon. Despite being conspicuously of its time, it responds with calmness and sensitivity to its site and context and in the tradition of such popular, public building types is also a strong civic gesture that adds to the life of town.

Mansilla + Tunon began their careers in the office of Rafael Moneo and their work displays similar formal preoccupations that have their roots in traditional Iberian architecture tempered by a Modernist restraint. Neutral, toplit containers, solid, alcazar-like walls and the subtle play of light are intelligently choreographed to create a sense of depth and solidity. All this is underscored by material refinement and concern for how things are made and put together. The bulk of the new concert hall is essentially a blind box clad in crisp white travertine, but on the edge of the square, the box cranks round abruptly to terminate in a massive wall that addresses its neighbours, the plaza and the monastery beyond like some kind of lion's head or three-dimensional billboard, adding a vital new piece to the existing urban composition.

Alluding playfully to a musical score, the billboard wall is divided into five horizontal strips, increasing in size as they rise. The bands form a matrix for a mathematically calculated grid of deeply recessed and splayed bays each containing windows of different sizes. These capture small chasms of light which cast changing reflections and pockets of intense luminosity through the spaces inside, echoing the way in which light percolates brilliantly through the thick walls of Spanish churches. In fact, in its solidity, whiteness, and geometric play of shadows, the wall is a dramatic abstraction of Iberian vernacular architecture. Superscale graphics run along the base of the facade, in a reprise of the eye-catching device employed by the architects in an earlier project at the Museum of Fine Arts in Castellon (AR June 2002).

Behind the wall is an exhibition hall and foyer contained in an angled wing set at the east end of the auditorium. The public entrance penetrates the knuckle between the angled wing and the auditorium leading to a vestibule that gives access to the concert hall foyer and promenading space at ground level. From here, a long ramp winds up to a triple-height exhibition hall on the first floor. Theatrically side-lit by the billboard wall, the exhibition space extends the life of the building beyond the evening performances. Below ground is a labyrinth of technical facilities, rehearsal spaces and dressing rooms overlooking a light court, and a public cafe, also facing the courtyard. A discrete strip of offices runs along the south edge of the concert hall.

The auditorium is divided into two parts. with 734 seats (excluding boxes) placed in Front of the concert platform, and 394 seats behind it rising on a steeper rake. This arrangement provides increased flexibility--as well as for large symphony concerts, the hall can be configured for chamber music, opera and even conferences, with moveable panels modifying acoustics as required. The stage is surmounted by a fly tower expressed as a monumental crenellation on the hermetic box of the concert hail. Lined with wide strips of dark Wenge timber, the auditorium has a sepulchral, sensual quality after the lightness and asceticism of the exterior and foyer spaces. Rows of boxes resemble intimate cocoons, where patrons can see (but not necessarily be seen), adding to the ritual and intrigue of an evening out. Under the light from lines of cylindrical fittings suspended from the ceiling shell, the deep blue tones of the seats mutate into an opulent purple.

If architecture is indeed frozen music, then Mansilla + Tunon have produced a tautly executed but beautifully resonant composition, qualities not lost on a wider critical fraternity as the concert hall was shortlisted for the 2003 Mies van der Rohe Award for European Architecture (at the time of writing, the winner was yet to be announced). The Madrid duo will also orchestrate the next phase in Leon's re-energized cultural life, having been selected to design the town's new arts centre on an adjacent site.


Masilla + Tunon, Madrid

Project team

Luis Moreno Mansilla, Emillo Tunon,

Andres Reguelro, Fernando Garcia Pino, Maria Linares

Structural engineer

Ove Arup

Mechanical engineer

JG Asociados

Cost consultants

Hernan, Corona y Asociados

Acoustic consultant

Higini Araw


Roland Halbe
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Article Details
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Author:Bertolucci, Carla
Publication:The Architectural Review
Geographic Code:4EUSP
Date:May 1, 2003
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