Glass boxes seldom impress with its programme beyond the initial clarity, a trend that is not helped by its overuse in commercial architecture around the world. From retail centres to office towers, glass boxes are used by architects as an easy solution to creating spaces which require some form of spatial significance and aesthetic focus. Yet not since Mies and Philip Johnson first experimented with the idea of the glass house has the glass box achieved any form of architectural significance beyond the aesthetic.
The Helsinki Music Centre sits at the centre of what can be described as intimidating neighbours. To its north is Aalto’s Finlandia Hall, while to the south is the formally aggressive Kiasma by Steven Holl. Across the street to its west is the historical Parliament House of Finland and the National Museum of Finland.
In designing the Music Centre and in consideration of the site’s neighbours, the architects opted for a glass box design which would more modestly fit in with the surrounding context. Using the reflective qualities of glass to mirror its neighbours, the building sits comfortably within its context when viewed from afar. On closer inspection, the transparent qualities of glass gives way to allow a visual connection between the exterior and interior spaces.
This connection is not limited to the visual though, as the landscape flows seamlessly into the interior of the building. The auditorium itself is surrounded by a perimeter of publically accessible space which acts as the gathering area before performances as well as public passage through the building. As a result, the building itself becomes public, inviting participation in its programme.
The large landscape garden connecting the Music Centre and Kiasma becomes a suitable stage for these activities. People gather on the terraced lawn that seemingly extends from the building while negotiating a level difference between the main street and the public spaces at the dropped level.
The programme of the building is revealed in layers, dividing between the city, the intermediate and the auditorium. Most interestingly, the layer separating the interior public spaces and the auditorium is made of glass, thus allowing visitors to glance into the auditorium during rehearsals or even performances, where the city becomes the backdrop.
In essence, the city and the building becomes intervened with each other as one connected space. Both bleed into the other, creating chances of unexpected encounters. In many ways, the building appears like a polite and modest interpretation of the Casa da Música in Porto. While that building features a path around the performing space that offer peeks into the interior programme wrapped in a visually expressive form, the Helsinki Music Centre features the same interpretation of programme but inside a much more modest skin. The glass box becomes a connecting element between the city and its music.