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The relationship between music and the spaces in which it is performed has always been an intimate and vexed one. The ancient Greek amphitheatre, with its raked seating around a curved auditorium, provided a model that still informs theatre design today. The Romans moved the action indoors, adding elaborate scenery on a raised stage, and boxes that denoted social prestige.

Today, opera houses and performing arts centres are springing up all over the world, symbols of cultural aspiration and economic confidence: it can be no accident that China leads the field in modern opera house architecture, raising statement cultural buildings in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou as well as in a host of smaller cities throughout its vast geographical spread.

Architectural historian Victoria Newhouse has turned her attention to the phenomenon of music and architecture, having explored the relationship between visual art, collecting and architecture in her thoughtful and thoroughly researched book Towards a New Museum. In Site and Sound: The Architecture and Acoustics of New Opera Houses and Concert Halls, she gives us a wide-ranging overview of opera house architecture, with a particular focus on how architectural innovation is limited by the need for functionality. Architects rarely get it right: history is full of sorry tales of concert halls and opera houses with appalling acoustics, and Newhouse cites Frank Gehry as a provocation for writing her book, when he described acoustics as ‘mystical magic straight out of Alice in Wonderland’. Is music’s relationship to architecture a matter of ephemeral art or predictable science? This is the pretext to Newhouse’s study.

There is much to enjoy and ponder here: an in-depth study of the (iconic but greatly flawed) Lincoln Center in New York, from its early development to various additions and modifications through the ages; a sweeping historical overview of concert halls, from the classical world to the shape of the future, including extensive reports from New York, Oslo, Porto, Berlin, Denmark, Austria and Canada; and a special focus on the performing arts centres of China and the cultural impact they are having on the wider world.

There are also notable absences: the saga of the Wales Millennium Centre and the rejection of Zaha Hadid’s visionary plans for Cardiff Bay could have made a fascinating case study about the fraught relationship between culture, architecture and civic ambition. Similarly, Santiago Calatrava’s Palau de les Artes in Valencia would have made a fascinating cautionary tale about the tendency for architects to prioritise form over function: a stunning, attention-grabbing opera house, designed with no box office or front-of-house facilities, poor sightlines and indifferent acoustics.

Still, Newhouse has given clarity and focus to a huge and fascinating subject, and her lavishly illustrated new volume is an invaluable addition to our understanding of why opera houses continue to be so important in creating a sense of identity and cohesion in the life of a modern city.

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