We meets Larry Kirkegaard, the man behind the Royal Festival Hall’s acoustic makeover

Larry Kirkegaard’s hand is an inch away from my cheek. This isn’t a sign that my interview with the charming and internationally renowned acoustician has become a lot more intimate than either of us expected. Instead, Kirkegaard is demonstrating that he doesn’t need to physically touch my cheek in order for me to feel his warmth.

A well-designed concert hall says Kirkegaard, is one where the musicians feel warmth and have a sense of their environment. This experience should be subtle, like the warmth a hand produces when held close to a face, and musicians should not have to work hard to encounter this.

The Chicago-based sound man has made a fleeting visit to London with his wife and executive assistant at Kirkegaard Associates Rogene Kirkegaard to be grilled about his work and most particularly, about his proposed and problematic acoustic refurbishment of our local treasure, the Royal Festival Hall.

With only a few hours sleep, after having taken an overnight flight from the States, the still good-humoured and expansive 66-year-old Kirkegaard manages to inject enthusiasm and energy into his conversation when discussing his craft.

In his long career as an acoustician, Kirkegaard confesses that the Festival Hall project (see page 18) has not only been one of the more demanding jobs, it has also had one of the longest gestation periods. Appointed as acoustic consultant in 1995, Kirkegaard Associates won’t begin the refurbishment until next summer, with an expected completion date of early 2007.

“Within the rules of the game, the Festival Hall project has been one of the most difficult,” says Kirkegaard. “The combination of the grade I listing constraints, its iconic quality and all the societies that have had a vested interest in the history of this room, in architectural terms as well as musical terms, have made it challenging.”

One might expect that the hall’s untouchable iconic status would scare off most acousticians. Instead, Kirkegaard says he “feels more like a knight-errant” in his crusade to get the acoustics right.

“If you sit in a space long enough, it begins talking to you and you can begin to see the parts that you are uncomfortable with,” he says. “Sit in the Royal Festival Hall and you look at the organ with that funny peekaboo opening underneath and all of the faults of the walls are accentuated by the lighting that has been cobbled together over the years.”

He respects the view of the Festival Hall’s concert-goer adding: “For a lot of people who have grown to love the music they’ve heard in the hall, it defines acoustics for them. These have been the most transformative, emotional moments associated with music that they have ever had. So they can’t be convinced that there’s anything wrong. But then you talk to the musicians and realise how difficult it is for them to play. Soloists walk off the stage dripping in perspiration because it’s such hard work to make sound, and it feels as if conductors have to move the orchestra individually with the baton. This is all because the hall gives nothing back.”

When pressed on what the acoustics will be like after the refurbishment is complete, Kirkegaard says “it won’t be dramatically different” but for the first time, the audience will “suddenly discover that the orchestra has cellos and double basses that are really clear and there will be a more embracing sound.”

Kirkegaard has travelled the world fine-tuning concert halls, theatres, churches, congress halls, casinos, airports and schools, but he has also worked on new venues and says there is little difference in the way he tackles existing and new buildings. “We approach projects in exactly the same way, being totally open-minded, it’s a blank piece of paper and we think fresh each time,” he says.

On deeper reflection, he adds: “Acoustics in existing and new concert halls have different kinds of difficulty. With an existing building that is handicapped, you’re dealing with what is possible within the constraints of that building. For the Chicago hall [Louis Sullivan’s 1887 Auditorium Theatre which was renovated last year], we had to raise the roof by 40 feet and strip out all the plaster and replace it.

“With existing buildings, the expectations are less ambitious and it’s accepted that it never was the best and it’s going to be as good as it can be. In new buildings, people would like it to be among the best in the world.”

The Chicago Tribune’s Man of the Year, a title he was awarded in 1997, suggests that the secret of his 40-strong firm’s success, which he established in 1976, is that we don’t think of “architects as the enemy” — a not altogether surprising statement given that he is himself an architect. Kirkegaard entered Harvard University intending to pursue a career in the church, and had enrolled in a liberal arts degree where he specialised in psychology. But some soul-searching resulted in him switching to architecture.

Curiously, he doesn’t cite his mother’s artistic and musical background, or the fact that he played the piano (“I was an accomplished amateur at 16”) as influences for moving into acoustics. Instead, the turning point was an “inspirational man” who taught a semester course in acoustics. He made the subject “come alive”, he says.

“Some part of me felt that I was a deserter in not going into architecture,” explains Kirke-gaard. “Not for myself, but in the eyes of my colleagues, it felt that this was an action that wasn’t mainstream.”

He confesses that he found “frustrating” the experience of presenting “painterly images” for his architectural tutors that didn’t explore how the structure was constructed. “I wanted to get into the detail of how buildings are built as well as looking at how they function. It mattered not just what the colour or the texture of a wall was, but the surfaces behind it, how solid or hollow it was. It was this deliciously complicated process, understanding how it sits in the whole framework of the building, that becomes very rewarding and challenging.”

Years of experience, research, computer simulations, an understanding that materials need to have mass, together with an ability to suspend judgement until all the information is gleaned are just some of Kirkegaard’s tools of the trade. Sometimes, when the design pushes his levels of experience and “challenges his confidence”, the acoustic firm will create large models of a building. For the Royal Festival Hall, Kirkegaard and his team have constructed a 3.5m-long, 1:20 model of the auditorium so they can test the acoustics after each change is made to the interior.

But what about the sophisticated computer modelling that has been developed in acoustics, such as Arup Acoustics’ SoundLab? Kirkegaard concedes that there is potential in this new software design tool that can create the sound of a building before it’s built, before adding: “It’s not magic, it’s like any computer, it gives back what you feed into it.”

He admits that along with the 100 or so projects his firm has in the office, they are also working on refining the SoundLab concept for their own use.

There are systems that can improve the acoustics of buildings electronically, explains Kirkegaard, but if there is a choice, the firm’s position is to do it “naturally”.

“Concert spaces are all about purity and authenticity and it’s a temple in those respects. If we cannot find the means, there is no will to make this the best hall it could be. We could defer, and put in the best possible system and for most people it would be convincing, but in the end, it wouldn’t be authentic. Natural is good.”

Sound advice

Recent acoustic projects by Kirkegaard Associates

  • Auditorium Theatre, Chicago (2003) Architect: Daniel P. Coffey
  • Barbican Concert Hall, London (2001) Architect: Pentagram and Caruso St John
  • Philadelphia Academy of Music, Philadelphia (1999) Architect: Vitetta Group
  • London Symphony Orchestra, St Luke’s, London (2003) Architect: Levitt Bernstein
  • Dewan Filharmonik Petronas, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia (1997) Architect: Cesar Pelli