Sounds of wood in Helsinki Music Centre

Sounds of wood in Helsinki Music Centre

Forest and wood have given the Helsinki Music Centre not only its exterior look, but also character and atmosphere. The pail-like main hall has been dubbed “smoke sauna”, owing to the tone of its warm, dark birch panels, while the seats in the vineyard-like audience have been described as a “logjam”, the wooden stairs are like creeks, and the ceiling of the main hall that regulates the sounds was named “Sound Canopy” (Finnish: Sointilatvus) following a public competition arranged to come up with a name for it.

In music circles the biggest expectations were focused on the acoustics. Users of the Main Hall have responded with both praise and excitement. According to acousticians, the acoustics of Helsinki Music Centre yield a clear sound, with a long echo and tone beautifully carried everywhere in the hall, to every single seat. A world-class hall, according to many a visitor.

Wooden hall is a part of instrument

Acoustics designer Yasuhisa Toyota is responsible for quite a few concert halls. He tells us he has used wood in some form in all the halls he has designed. – Wood is a good material in concert halls. The stage should be built of soft local wood. The stage floor is like a part of an instrument, it too has a sound. We always encourage architects to use wood because the experience of music is created not only of acoustics, but also of the visual atmosphere, Toyota explains. Natural materials offer the audience a comfortable atmosphere.

Toyota’s acoustics designs are to be found in many concert halls famous throughout the world: Los Angeles, Sapporo, Copenhagen, Mariinsky Theater in St Petersburg. - In Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles I used Douglas-fir, in Sapporo and Kawasaki I used Japanese wood, and in Mariinsky Theater I used Finnish wood components and of course here in Helsinki I used pine and and birch, Toyota lists.

Toyota is not very keen to comment on which hall is his best design, but laughs and asks me how many children I have. The same goes when asked about the best seat in the hall. - I feel I have been successful in my work if one can sit anywhere and say “this seat is the best”. Acoustics is such a sensitive issue that a beautiful tone of the sound ultimately determines the whole musical experience. That is why the hall must be able to guarantee an intimate atmosphere for the whole audience.

- Now it’s the orchestras’ responsibility to find their own tone in this hall. Often they start too strongly. My advice is to take it easy in the beginning and really look for the tone, as every hall has its individual characteristics, Toyota says.

Acclaimed acoustics result of Finnish work

Toyota praises the work of Raision Puusepät, the company behind the woodwork in the orchestra hall. – We want to excel in difficult, demanding, large projects, that really test our know-how and reliability, says Managing Director Jarmo Yrjölä.

The top layer of the orchestra stage is made of soft birch 45 mm thick and finished with white oil. The walls of the foyer and the main hall are made of birch panel, which includes many technical details, leaves room for the natural movement of wood, and serves acoustical needs. Raision Puusepät was also responsible for the paneling in the exterior walls of the foyer and entrance.

- The project could not have been much bigger, Yrjölä says. - We worked long days for one and a half years here. The success of a project is based on our previous networking and that we subcontract some of the processes to other companies whom we trust, who share our quality criteria and who have sufficient machinery. Our network is what made it possible for us to handle large interior contracts in both the Finnish Parliament House and the Swedish Riksdag Building.

Supply of quality wood must be guaranteed

400 cubic meters of knotless birch of a certain thickness was used for the interior structures of the Music Hall, and Raision Puusepät acquired it directly from the Savo region and Central Finland. 100 cubic meters of knotless pine was used for the stage alone. - The biggest challenge was taking into consideration how much the wood would move in different parts of the year as humidity varies. June and July are the toughest months, as the humidity is at its highest then. Then again, when the heating is on it has a drying effect. The joints move, wood is a natural material, and it must be finished on both sides. We had to leave room for the movement, but at the same time we had to do it according to terms set by acoustics. This job involved detailed consulting and solution-seeking with the architect or his representative. Our strengths in wood building lie in interior decoration, which is something that many architects want to have in modern public buildings.

Images © Musiikkitalo / Arno Chapelle
Written by Markku Laukkanen, Finnish Timber Council

More information:
Jarmo Yrjölä, Managin director, Raision Puusepät
tel. +358 2 510 2640