Classical music culture is often thought of as a bastion of tradition. But there is innovation everywhere – just look at the newer buildings in which it is played and enjoyed. Here, we look at ten concert venues built this century whose architectural brilliance broke the mould.

1Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay

It has been compared to all sorts of things since opening in 2002, from insects’ eyes to the prickly durian fruit prevalent in Southeast Asia, but the architects actually had lanterns and Asian weaving patterns in mind when they designed Singapore’s Esplanade, one of the city’s most striking buildings which holds a concert hall, indoor and outdoor theatres and more. The idea for a cultural centre on the Marina Bay was first mooted by the government in 1989, and James Stirling, Michael Wilford and the DP Architects company took on the project (Stirling did not see its completion, however, dying in 1992). The venue’s two domes, comprised of interweaving aluminium spikes, have not been without their controversy, with the building costing S$600 million to complete.

2Walt Disney Concert Hall

The project to provide a major arts institution for the city Los Angeles began in 1987 with a $50 million gift from Lillian Disney, widow of the entertainment tycoon. Architectural don Frank Gehry envisioned curvaceous, wave-like forms for the building, but things stalled while the rest of the money required for the project (which ended up at a total of $274 million) was gathered. In the end, the stone structures he imagined were changed to stainless steel (both because of financial considerations and the acclaim his steel-clad design for Bilbao’s Guggenheim Museum received), and Gehry had to use complex software originally used to design military aircraft to realise his designs. Construction began in 1992 and the concert hall didn’t open until 11 years later, but its striking aesthetic has made it an integral part of the city’s cultural fabric.  

3Richard B Fisher Centre for the Performing Arts

Another Gehry imagining, built by the architecture firm Zahner, this venue in Annandale-on-Hudson in New York State, owned by the liberal arts institution Bard College, similarly uses a sleek stainless steel facade. The architect conceptualised it as a “theatrical mask that covers the raw face of the performance space”, and it certainly conforms to his preference for sinuous, flowing shapes. Three years and $62 million went into its construction. Housing two theatres and a dance studio, the venue is also said to be fossil fuel free in its operations, relying on geothermal power sources.

4Auditorio de Tenerife 

On the edge of the sea in the city of Santa Cruz de Tenerife, like some hulking behemoth from a distant galaxy, lies architect Santiago Calatrava’s Auditorio. The curving concrete wave that hangs over the auditorium not only fits with the nautical location but is also a feat of engineering ingenuity, being only supported at a couple of key points by the auditorium structure. Calatrava, also lauded for his space age design of Valencia’s Palau de les Arts Reina Sofia, unveiled his designs in 1991. Construction got under way in 1997, and the project eventually cost €72 million. Eight years after its opening, the hall was renamed Auditorio de Tenerife Adán Martín in tribute to the late Canary Islands president.

5National Centre for Performing Arts, Beijing

With its similarly futuristic style, Beijing’s cultural centre sparked a backlash due to the building’s proximity to more antiquated landmarks like the Forbidden City. And the cost of cleaning the 46 metre-high dome, comprising 18,000 titanium plates and 1,000 panes of glass has also proved hefty. But there’s no denying that French architect Paul Andrew’s design is arresting: encircled by an artificial lake, the structure resembles a bubble or water droplet floating on a placid surface. The project began in 2001 and took six years to complete, in the end costing ¥3.2 billion, and the final product holds an opera house, concert hall and theatre.


Iceland showed just how committed it was to culture when in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, the government committed to funding the completion of Reykjavík’s cultural complex which had begun just before the crash. This made Harpa the only construction project in Iceland at the time. A collaboration between the Danish firm Henning Larsen Architects, Icelandic firm Batteríið Architects and the Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson, the structure – in keeping with the country’s geological makeup – takes its inspiration from basalt crystals. With its facade of 714 interlocking glass panels – both clear and coloured – the venue cost €164 million to build and opened in 2011.

7Neues Festspielhaus Erl

Looking like an obsidian blade rising from the ground, the festival hall of the Tiroler Festspiele was inspired by the rocks of the nearby mountains overlooking the small Austrian village of Erl. Funded largely by Haselsteiner Family Private Foundation, the €36 million project was completed by Delugan Meissl Associated Architects in 2012. A neat seasonal synchronicity has also been noted: in the winter months, the black Festspielhaus stands out starkly against the snow while the nearby Passionspielhaus, which is white, is blends in with its surroundings. In the summer, however, the opposite is true, with the dark Festspielhaus obscured by trees and the Passionspielhaus standing out against the green.

8Fondation Louis Vuitton

Frank Gehry is keen on boats, and when he was approached by CEO of the French-led multinational LVMH Bernard Arnault in 2001 to design a new art museum his inner sailor must have been singing. Situated in Paris’ Bois de Boulogne, the Fondation Louis Vuitton was said to be inspired by 19th-century glass houses that would have once featured in the park. Gehry envisioned a building made of a white concrete named Ductal holding 11 galleries and a 350-seat auditorium, with 12 billowing “sails” made up of 3,600 glass panels which would cover the outside of the structure. There was resistance from local groups, six years of construction and a reported $143 million bill, but in 2014 the venue finally opened to the public.

9Philharmonie de Paris

Controversy surrounded the 2015 grand opening of the new Paris Philharmonie when its own architect refused to attend. Despite the project arriving two years behind schedule and three times over budget (coming in at €390 million), designer Jean Nouvel believed the push to complete the building had resulted in a rushed job which he did not want to be associated with. The idea had begun around 20 years previously with the building of Christian de Portzamparc’s nearby Cité de la Musique, and the finished product – boasting a symphony hall and museum space – catches the eye with its shimmering aluminium forms and grey bird-shape mosaic.

10Elbphilharmonie Hamburg

Jacques Herzog, co-architect of the recently-opened Elbphilharmonie alongside Pierre de Meuron, admitted to The Guardian that there were times when he thought the project would completely sink both their careers. Arriving seven years late at ten times the original projected cost (ending up at €789 million), and accompanied by lawsuits and a parliamentary investigation, the project brings to mind such similar feats of artistic quixotism as fellow Herzog Werner lugging a steamship up a Peruvian mountainside to film Fitzcarraldo. The architects decided to lug their own structure – a glass facade inspired by circus tents, sport stadiums and the ancient theatre of Delphi – atop the 1960s Kaispeicher warehouse, where it now stands as an undeniably impressive piece of modern architecture, holding two concert halls, a hotel and apartments.