Casa da Musica Porto might be known for its spirituous wine and many bridges, but what you might not know is that it has one of Europe’s most interesting concert buildings. Initiated in 1999 when Porto was selected one of two cultural capitals of Europe for 2001, Casa da Música is part of a cultural renewal process which includes restoring the historic city centre, since 1996 included in the UNESCO World Heritage list. Despite being placed in central Porto so close to this historical site, the building is everything but contextual in the traditional sense of the word, nor is it formed by the local architectural tradition represented by Álvaro Siza, today one of the biggest international architect stars. Instead, it is a singular diamond-shaped white concrete object placed on a new piazza covered in Italian travertine stone, like a spaceship stranded in a red space dust landscape.

The architect Rem Koolhaas and his office OMA (Office of Metropolitan Architecture) wanted to create a building with a greater amount of transparency than what is usually the case in concert buildings: ‘Most cultural institutions only serve part of the population. A majority knows their exterior shape; only a minority knows what happens inside.’ Casa da Música wants to be more than a concert hall and takes on new and unexpected means to achieve this.

By hollowing out the two auditoriums and other public spaces inside with large glass walls, the building reveals itself to the city outside; at the same time the city is exposed to the visiting public. The remaining spaces surrounding the auditoria form a long pathway connecting the entrance to the terrace on the roof, allowing visitors to walk around in a labyrinth of performance areas, educational rooms, chill-out-zones and a restaurant.

The main auditorium has many features never before applied in a building of its size, and together they contribute to the acoustics. The corrugated glass walls let light in and give the spectators a blurred image of the city outside, at the same time preventing sound from “bouncing” between the walls. Two big organs on either side of the stage give the audience a visual connection to musical space, without being able to contribute to the music directly – they are both fake – but help redirecting sound from the orchestra.

The choice of materials is unsentimental in the OMA tradition, mixing high-tech weaves and aluminium laminates with raw pine boards and gold plate. Discovering the building is like wandering around in ‘Spaceship Enterprise’ as narrow paths lead you through ventilation shafts and padded rehearsal rooms, finally ending up on the roof terrace, giving you a striking view of Porto. A view which is helping the change from a decadent city of the past to a vibrant city with a promising future.

Originally published in Display Magazine (Barcelona) No 6 (2006)