Will Frank Gehry’s Wimbledon concert hall outshine £300m City rival?

You wait decades for a city to get a world-class concert hall and two come along at once. Last month plans were revealed for the Centre for Music in the City of London by the New York architects Diller Scofidio + Renfro. But there is now another project to build a 1,250-seat venue in the suburb better known for its tennis – Wimbledon – to be designed by the celebrated Los Angeles architect Frank Gehry.

The plan is driven by Anthony Wilkinson, founder and director of the annual Wimbledon international music festival, which in the past 10 years has hosted around 200 concerts, held mostly in local churches. He felt that the area could do better, while also addressing the capital’s notorious shortage of acoustically outstanding large concert halls.

The Albert Hall and the Royal Festival Hall are both flawed. “After rehearsing for half an hour in the Royal Festival Hall,” the conductor Simon Rattle once said, “you lose the will to live.”

Gehry, who was shortlisted in the competition to design the £288m Barbican project, and Wilkinson are keen to stress that the two new concert halls are complementary, not rivals. “One doesn’t have to negate the other,” Gehry told the Observer. There could be “a win-win for both”. With 2,000 seats the Centre for Music is significantly larger. The Wimbledon hall, Gehry said, was “small enough that it could attract creative stuff to happen that probably couldn’t be afforded at the Barbican”.

Wilkinson has recruited the dancer Darcey Bussell, who lives locally, and the conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen to act as patrons of the project. The internationally renowned acoustician Yasuhisa Toyota is to work on the design. The Philharmonia Orchestra, Classical Opera, the London Mozart Players, the Academy of St Martin in the Fields and the Stoneleigh Youth Orchestra have all expressed interest in performing there.

As well as the main hall it is to have a 300-seat flexible space. The complex is to be “multi-genre”, serving “very good quality pop groups” as well as classical music. It is to be available to local groups as well as international ensembles. Wilkinson said “the building should hum throughout the day. I want it to be in the centre of the community”.

The project draws on a longstanding desire to build a replacement for an auditorium that was part of Wimbledon’s old town hall, demolished to make way for the Centre Court shopping centre in 1987. The local council promised to build one at the time, but it has yet to happen.

The intended site is the Hartfield Road car park in the town centre, which belongs to the London borough of Merton. It is adjacent to another shopping complex, containing a Morrisons supermarket and an Odeon cinema, which a big property company is hoping to redevelop. Wilkinson is in discussion with the company on working in partnership on the two sites.

Wilkinson, a former film-maker who lived in Los Angeles for seven years, said he has always admired Gehry – “his architecture has a sense of humour and a soul to it”. After visiting Gehry’s building for the New World Symphony in Miami he wrote to the architect about the Wimbledon project. Gehry phoned him back. “I’ve always wanted to do a concert hall in London,” Wilkinson recalled him saying, “let’s talk about it.”

In an interview, Gehry, whose musical projects include the Disney hall in Los Angeles and the Pierre Boulez Saal in Berlin, said he liked “the idea of being in a commercial centre. It could be very productive on both sides. It could make the concert hall unique.” It would be “part of the downtown, part of the community”.

He has produced outline designs showing how the concert hall could be combined with the larger redevelopment of the Morrisons and the Odeon. What the project now needs to progress is fundraising – its construction cost is put at £60m-£65m – and a commitment from the council that its car park can be used in this way.

Merton acknowledged that “there has been a long-held ambition by the community for a new performance concert hall in Wimbledon”. It said it was “working with the Wimbledon Concert Hall Group to determine if there is … a credible, sustainable and viable business case for a multipurpose cultural venue in Wimbledon”.

Wilkinson would like a clearer signal that it supports the project so the fundraising can go ahead. “Whatever conditions they give us we don’t really care. I’ve got people queueing up to say they will donate, but they ask what’s the council’s position?”

It’s hard to realise pledges without a site and Merton is reluctant to commit the site without pledges. The council’s caution with public assets is understandable but the hall would be a major coup for the borough. It is to be hoped the council uses some imagination to get the project to the next stage.

Link to the original article published in the Guardian.