Jason Flanagan on Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios’ Royal Birmingham Conservatoire
The Royal Birmingham Conservatoire has moved from Paradise Circus to a new £43m home, designed by Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios, on Birmingham City University’s campus in the Eastside ‘Learning Quarter’. The conservatoire features five performance spaces: a 500-seat concert hall, a 150-seat recital hall, a black-box music lab, a ‘basement’ jazz club and a 100-seat organ recital room, all supported by 70 practice studios for the school’s 600 undergraduate and postgraduate students.
On approaching the Conservatoire, a dramatic angled brick prow rises over 25 metres, marking the intersection of the northern edge of the campus and the pedestrian route to the park at its centre. The chamfered brick planes run away from the corner along Jennens Road to signal the ‘city’ entrance, while the angled slice of the prow leads down one storey along a landscaped route to the ‘campus’ entrance.
This was a challenging site, and FCBS has responded with an equally tough but elegant architectural proposition that it refers to as an ‘urban castle’. The building reads as a single carved and chamfered block, facetted to hug the site, with subtle inflections of brick planes creating the entrances and window openings. The base is defined by a darker brick plinth, which unifies the larger window openings and entrances. Verticality is exaggerated with a ‘zip’ detail of projecting brick ends, which articulates the large expanses of brick and neatly disguises the movement joints. Within these bays, a random pattern of windows rises to textured patches that repeat the brick-end detail and define a cap to the building and the enclosure to the rooftop plant.
The dual entrance strategy neatly resolves the approach from both the ‘city’ and the ‘campus’, as well as the storey-height level change across the site. The entrances are linked by a striking quadruple-height foyer, which opens out to views over the new public space to the south.
The foyer also reveals the principal organisational feature of the building – the east-west circulation spine – which separates the key performance spaces from the noisy road by locating the bulk of the rehearsal spaces to the north. Generous timber-lined staircases connect the upper and lower levels of the foyer, while a cafe occupies the lower level and links to three of the performance spaces.
Walls and ceilings are lined with timber fins, providing a visual screen to blacked-out services as well as an extensive installation of acoustic absorption which allows visitors to listen to the musicians play at the base of the foyer while still holding a conversation – remarkable in such a large volume and appropriate to the client’s acoustic aspirations.
Upstairs, leading off the southern foyer, doors open into the concert hall, revealing the golden glow of the timber acoustic panelling within. This soaring space, rising to 16 metres and providing a particularly large volume for the 500-seat occupancy, is designed to allow not only rehearsals but also performances by symphony orchestras. Volumetrically, it is a ‘shoebox’ – long and tall, but wide enough to allow a full orchestra to occupy the platform.
Geometrically, the hall reiterates the architectural language of subtle, facetted planes as the space is chamfered around the edges of the platform. The space is an essay in the architectural integration of acoustic diffusion, and everything you see is really designed to enhance the experience of a performance. A plinth of fine-grained plywood profiles wraps around the stalls to scatter high frequencies, while the upper part of the room is defined by a larger modulation which acts to disperse mid and bass frequencies.
While the concert hall is located directly above the recital hall and Lab, it is supported on an independent structure, effectively forming an isolated acoustic enclosure. Flexibility is built into the platform, which can be reconfigured for chamber and orchestral performance and rehearsal.
Above the platform, a grid of curved plywood panels hovers in the blackness and provides early sound reflections. This allows performers to play in ensemble, and heavy acoustic banners can be deployed to tune the reverberation time. The 150-seat recital hall is a more functional and flexible room, while the Lab is a classic black-box studio for electro acoustic experimentation. The jazz club is a first for a conservatoire – they often have jazz departments but rarely a dedicated performance space. The room is suitably dark, while intriguing views down into the space are offered from windows in the foyer. Stacked directly above this space is the organ recital room, with a volume sufficient to generate the necessary long reverberation times.
Away from the public spaces, the conservatoire becomes more school-like, with 70 practice rooms of varying size for sectional and individual practice, and suites of rooms for music technology. Most rooms are daylit, which is vital as students are expected to practise for six hours a day.
The intricacies of acoustic coordination and the detailing of the concert hall in particular are handled elegantly and reveal the close collaboration of architect and acoustician. The Conservatoire is intended to provide a new public face for the northern edge of the campus, but architecturally it balances the public life of performance and the more private aspect of music practice.
The relatively simple exterior brick facades shield a complex interior – a sophisticated three-dimensional puzzle of stacked and overlapping acoustic spaces. While the acoustic testing has yet to take place, the volumes and geometry of the spaces and the quality of the internal detailing suggest the acoustics should deliver world-class facilities for the Conservatoire and an important new cultural hub for Birmingham.
Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios
White Young Green
Armstrong, Hunter Douglas