Hitting the right note

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The new multi-function hall in Bury St Edmund’s conceals acoustic and mechanical sophistication with a deliberately simple appearance and a palette of materials

Residents of Bury St Edmunds, in the UK, have a new facility for classical and rock concerts, weddings, antiques fairs and a range of other functions.

It will be obvious to anybody who attends several events that the hall is very flexible, since it can be configured with raked seating or an entirely flat floor. What will not be so readily apparent is that the interior of the hall, a harmonious space lined largely with American white oak (www.americanhardwood.org), is far less simple than it appears to be.

Set among the shops and flats of the Arc development, the hall had to be acoustically isolated, and also offer its visitors a good aural experience. “When you walk into the space, you have no idea how sophisticated it is,” said Jim Greaves, the partner at Hopkins Architects in charge of the project.

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“It feels very calm.”

Connoisseurs of concert spaces may also spot a similarity to the Snape Maltings concert hall in Aldeburgh, designed by Arup Associates in the 1960s. This is not coincidental – Snape has famously good acoustics, so echoing its form makes sense. Both have internal roofs that slope in both directions, with a relatively small flat element at the top. “It does all the acoustic reflection for us,” said Greaves.

But although Snape and Bury St Edmunds are both in the east of England, their situation could not be more different. Whereas Snape is an isolated collection of former brewery buildings, the new hall is part of the redevelopment of a market town, on the site of a former cattle market.

Hopkins designed the whole scheme, and deliberately placed the concert hall, called the Apex, between shops with flats above, so that it faced a new square. In this way, it prevents the area becoming a dead space at night, when the shops are shut.

Hopkins worked with theatre consultants Carr and Angier to work out the functionality that the auditorium needs to offer. “The business model works if there are four walls for hire,” said Greaves, “which can operate with a flat floor or a rake.” It can accommodate 1,000 standing or 500 sitting.

Structurally, it was necessary to make the enclosure very heavy, to prevent sound escaping and annoying nearby residents, particularly when the building is host to the ‘Battle of the Bands’, an annual rock concert. It therefore has a structural brickwork diaphragm wall, with a heavy concrete roof.

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