Vanished Sounds: Paper Concert Hall In L’Aquila

The design philosophy of Shigeru Ban transcends visitors into the life and purpose of architecture. The Paper Concert Hall in L'Aquila still proves that.

Photo: Forgemind ArchiMedia / Flickr / CC by 2.0

The design philosophy of Shigeru Ban transcends visitors into the life and purpose of architecture. The Paper Concert Hall in L’Aquila still proves that.

The morning sun saturates the open space. There’s a lone stalwart structure that lights up the once empty, almost-barren field. It sits atop a balding land, dried up from soaking the glorious heat of the weather. If visitors walk up to the architecture, their footsteps will echo on the wooden floor, caressing their ears with the tune of unhurried essence of life while embracing a sensation of home creeping up to their heart. Anyone who marries the idyll of escapism is welcome to the Paper Concert Hall in L’Aquila.

The auditorium is a political gift. When a crushing earthquake hit L’Aquila, Italy in April 2009, hundreds of precious lives crippled under its wrath. Buildings and people convulsed together, unable to toughen up to the pervading 6.3 magnitude. The aftermath of the natural disaster woke up to around 80,000 displaced residents and 10,000 damaged buildings. Known as the City of Music, L’Aquila grieved the loss of transcendental and instrumental hymns as woes and sorrow replaced their composition.

In July 2009, the same year the earthquake occurred, the G8 Summit was held in the epicenter of the disaster. During that moment, the Japanese government spearheaded the initiative to resuscitate the musical festivities in the City of Music through the means of a temporary music hall. The offer represented one country’s solidarity and support to a nation facing severe repercussions of an earthquake. The Italian government took it up, paving a way to realize the project into a true construction.

In the midst of bureaucracy, the Japanese government crowned the award-winning Shigeru Ban to shear through the grace of the temporary music hall project. The Tokyo-born architect is famed for his cost-effective and functional architecture. His use of recyclable materials such as bamboo and cardboard defines him as a pro-sustainability advocate and head-on innovator. What has drawn the world’s eyes to his hallmarks is his immense ability to articulate practical shelters and buildings as a response to countries that have been hit by disasters. ‘Disaster Relief Projects’ is his brainchild and continues to be a legacy that weighs well on his long list of accolades.  

Carrying out the project didn’t come off easy when red tape clung onto the process. The original site where the architecture would sprout was a bus depot and owned by an influential Italian organization. Negotiations were off the table as the tedious back-and-forth settlements would cause massive delays, defeating the purpose of the immediate need for a temporary concert hall. Shigeru and his team of volunteer architects, engineers, and workers nodded their heads to another spacious site bearing fewer restrictions on diplomacy while keeping the blueprint for the construction’s look intact.

Shigeru and his team wind through the limited budget of around half a million euros to chuck an auditorium that would house at least hundreds of visitors. To reflect on the swift punch of the expenses, the design and construction adapted to the available means by retaining the low-cost methodology, putting the spirit and faith of the architecture in the hands of volunteers, and exuding excellent craftsmanship using donated materials.

With Shigeru’s enclave rowing forward to his signature design method, their unabridged blueprint ricocheted off its road when the city’s acousticians challenged how the auditorium would look like. The unconventional, recyclable materials were far from what they imagined Shigeru and his team would adopt, and the shape of the whole architecture was scrutinized in terms of how the sound would richly reverberate through the thin walls planned. The final product resulted in the architects and engineers watering down the original plan, marring the honeyed imagery of Japan’s heartfelt support to Italy.

The payoff sprung as the Paper Concert Hall of L’Aquila, Italy. The interior cascades with a skewed oval lodging inside, draped with red silky curtains to hide its inner grandeur. Once they’re drawn, the core of the hall unravels into a 230-seat space with paper tubes stacked against the wall, illuminated by the warm light that shoots upward from the floor to curate a fountain-like aesthetic. Behind the walls, clay sacks pepper the steel frames to erect the architecture from its foundation. Simply taking a seat in one of the soft-cushioned blue chairs is a treasured invitation to surrender under the basking glory of Shigeru’s artistry.

Outside the concert hall, the seamless beauty of the sun filters through the towering frosted glass panes and all open to let the air permeate the inside. The emblem of Shigeru’s touch appears visible through the 44 cardboard-based pillars that support the pyramid-like roof, evoking the essence of sustainability while keeping in touch with the spellbinding ambiance of the lodging.

Two years after the announcement of the project, the Paper Concert Hall was inaugurated on May 07, 2011, knitting a solemn tribute for the lost lives of the April 2009 earthquake through an orchestra conducted by Tomomi Nishimoto. The monumental event indulged in the prowess of striking hymns, allowing the beat of the performance pulsate as a call to L’Aquila’s comeback to the music scene.

But the soulful sound of the musical instruments fell short. What posed as Japan’s symbol of succour to Italy turned into dust years following the inauguration. The Paper Concert Hall remains closed and inaccessible to the public. The once virtue of reinforcement has dwindled down into an abandoned, forgotten figment of a memory. A list of theories points at the politics that spiraled down with the employed construction company, the issue of underpaid workers, the lack of quality in the materials used, and the damaged roof that questioned public safety. Regardless of the grief-stricken claims, the lauded Shigeru and his Disaster Relief Project for L’Aquila paint an isolated brainchild bringing forth faith to summon back vibrancy in the City of Music.

The design philosophy of Shigeru Ban transcends visitors into the life and purpose of architecture. Sitting adjacent to the Alfredo Casella Conservatory, the Paper Concert Hall proves just that. If the visitors’ shoes tap against the abandoned wooden floors of the auditorium, they’ll open themselves up to the stupor the concert hall elicits and dwell deep into the realms of what it could have been and could still be. As the sun dips behind the clouds in the late afternoon, a tinge of hope flowers that the City of Music will call upon its fervor again through the auditorium.

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