How you react to the Copenhagen Concert Hall, which opened last January, depends on when you see it — and what you are expecting. Because of Ateliers Jean Nouvel’s design approach, both the container and the auditoriums and spaces within assume a vastly different character depending on the time of day you visit. The building, which belongs to Danish Radio and is the home of the Danish National Symphony Orchestra, sits on the outskirts of historic Copenhagen. From the outside in bright light, it looks like nothing more than a large rectangular box that for some reason is swathed in electric-blue scaffolding net and plopped down in an industrial landscape. When the sun goes down, it is transformed into an ethereal, dematerialized object with images of musicians eerily flitting across the screens of glass fiber with a PVC coating. The multilevel interior foyer also changes personality by day and by night. In broad daylight, the main lobby looks like an airport from a 1940s war movie, where sun streams through large window walls and illuminates the dark concrete floor and military-style furnishings designed to resemble flight crates for musical instruments. At night, the tough-glam lobby takes on the iridescence of a multimedia nightclub, with projections splashing polychromatic patterns and videos across various surfaces.

Neither its day- nor nighttime persona gets you ready for the large concert hall. Seating 1,809 and raised above the lobby, it looks in section like some giant clam caught among pilings within a huge (190 by 315 feet) blue cage, 148 feet high. Yet when you enter the auditorium, you discover an expansive and warmly resplendent interior.

Here in the orchestra hall, trays of seating fan out from the stage in the vineyard formation that Hans Scharoun pioneered with his Berlin Philharmonie (1963) and that Frank Gehry handsomely reprised in his Disney Hall [RECORD, November 2003, page 134]. The Danish client was enamored of Scharoun’s Berlin solution, where seats in balconies wrap the stage and create a more intimate listening experience. Nouvel called in Yasuhisa Toyota of Nagata Acoustics (page 74), who was also the consultant on Disney Hall, to design a space that could provide the right mix of direct and reflected sound with the appropriate reverberation time, and ensure a sense of clarity without dryness. Angled walls of CNC-milled birch-veneer board with textured grooves provide reflectivity and absorption, supplemented by “wave” walls of layered gypsum board in the upper part of the auditorium. In addition, lacquered birch-veneer panels on the ceiling and a sound reflector canopy over the stage modulate the acoustics in the hall where the ceiling soars to a height of 77 feet. With the birch walls stained a warm chestnut tone and the wave walls imbued with lush reddish and ocher tints by decorative painters Alain Bony and Henri Labiole, the room has the roseate candlelight glow of traditional concert halls.

While Nouvel placed this largest hall in the upper reaches of the building, he sank three smaller music spaces about 8 feet below grade. The largest is a 540-seat rehearsal and concert hall (Studio 2); the next is a flexible black box (Studio 3), which accommodates 170 people standing or sitting for various musical fare; and a small, red concert hall that doubles as a production studio for 180 people (Studio 4). The three ancillary performance halls reveal distinct acoustical capabilities. Four strata of birch-paneled sliding doors in Studio 2 heighten the reflectivity of sound for orchestra rehearsals. In Studio 3, black gypsum-board wall panels open to absorb sound and provide a short reverberation time. Finally, in Studio 4, red aluminum-and-felt panels pivot for acoustical flexibility, for both recording and rehearsal use. Numerous music rooms, offices, and archives placed on the north end of the building supplement the performing arts spaces, and receive additional light by virtue of an elevated, outdoor courtyard.

Jean Nouvel won the competition (over Rafael Moneo, Rafael Viñoly, and Snøhetta) to design the approximately 592,000-square-foot concert hall in 2002, a fourth component of DR City, a 1.42-million-square-foot complex for Danish Radio’s offices, TV, radio, and orchestra productions. Clustered on a barren site being developed by Copenhagen, DR City acts as a gateway of sorts to Ørestad, the new residential, office, and school development connected to downtown by an elevated metro that whizzes by the concert hall. As the area fills in, it might look more appealing, but now it’s stark: You can’t help thinking some of the concert hall’s facades would be better off with the vertical vegetal wall Patrick Blanc created for Nouvel’s Musée Quai Branly in Paris [RECORD, February 2007, page 86].

Nouvel’s strong performing arts reputation rests on his well-received Cultural and Congress Center built in Lucerne in 1999 and the massively sculptural cobalt blue Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis [record, August 2006, page 108]. Here in Copenhagen, Nouvel continues his interest in surface play à la Guthrie, where photos of historic theater luminaries appear screen-printed on the aluminum-paneled skin. Here, Nouvel opts for a dematerialized envelope, where the glass-fiber skin is draped over a steel Vierendeel frame and a tension-cable-grid system supporting glass panels.

The poured-in-place concrete structure for the concert hall enables the largest auditorium to be carried like a basket by three stair cores of poured-in-place concrete. Between the south and west cores, a bridge of poured-in-place concrete supports the weight of the bowl above, which spans 115 feet. Additional steel supports fill out the structural framework for this bold form.

In creating a parti where the concert halls are discretely articulated masses embedded within a glass-fiber-and-steel cage, Nouvel uses lighting to further blur the boundaries between the contents and the container. Working with lighting designer Yann Kersalé, Nouvel makes elaborate use of a fusillade of equipment, including 1,600 LEDs embedded in a perforated acoustical ceiling, plus a range of slide and video projectors for the abstract and figurative imagery. In addition, accent lights in the form of boxy “pillows” illuminate the idiosyncratic concrete wall panels cast with a wrinkled elephant-skin surface. Lighting in the main, 990,000-cubic-foot auditorium is equally important: Floor lamps with frosted-glass coverings emphasize the geometry of the slanted, textured walls, while a band of light in the upper portion of the hall brings out its contours.

But when lighting is everything, the person/machine at the switch plays a dominant role in setting the mood. This observer attended a design awards ceremony in August where the lighting in many areas resembled a New York subway, and the lobby seemed extremely dim, without sizzle. Inside the auditorium, the ambience of a romantically crepuscular setting witnessed in an earlier visit was destroyed by the harsh light emitted from large video screens. Furthermore, spotlighting on the upper wave walls made the decorative painting look straight out of Disneyland.

But that was one particular night, absent a full orchestra concert. In terms of music, the reception to the acoustics seems positive: six months after the opening, Mark Swed, music critic for the Los Angeles Times, wrote that it has “Disney’s special acoustical cocktail of powerful rich bass, clarity, delicacy, and spine-tingling immediacy.”

A visually based assessment will tend to be schizoid—but so is the building, with its scaffoldinglike blue cage by day and fun-house lighting at night. Indeed, you wonder if it was worth the much-talked-about budget overruns (the building reportedly cost $325 million)—except for the grand, lush, major hall, and the handsome, smaller music studios.