‘We wanted to see the shape of sound’

‘We wanted to see the shape of sound’

Chinese studio Open Architecture unveils Chapel of Sound, a sculptural open-air concert hall in the forests of Jinshanling, a section of the Great Wall of China 

Nestled in the green, rolling hills of Jinshanling, in the countryside north-east of Beijing, the Chapel of Sound cuts a sculptural, monolithic figure. The project, resembling something between giant land art and a natural rock formation is the brainchild of Chinese architecture studio Open Architecture. The practice, founded by Li Hu and Huang Wenjing, designed the building as an open-air concert hall, offering views to the ruins of the Ming Dynasty-era Great Wall of China, merging its strong, rippling concrete form with its context of greenery and historical architecture. Working with a fairly open brief, the architects described wanting the building to help them ‘see the shape of sound’.

The building has a brutalist, almost boulder-like appearance. The material is enriched by an aggregate of local mineral-rich rocks, connecting it physically as well as conceptually with its surroundings. This, the rock-like overall composition, and the fact that the volume was carved to be narrower towards the base (designed with the help of international engineering firm Arup), helped the architects ensure that the piece has a gentler impact in its natural surroundings. At the same time, using no heating or air-conditioning, the Chapel of Sound consumes minimal energy, in keeping with this sustainable approach. 

Open-air concert hall at one with its site

Chapel of Sound open-air concert hall in China by Open Architecture

‘The Chapel of Sound sits gently in the valley, with a small footprint anchored to the ground, reducing its impact on the site to a minimum. The different openings on the concrete shell each connect to different parts of the site – the hills and the Great Wall, and the sky above,’ say the architects. ‘To create something that belongs to this very special land, its valley and rocky mountain around, has been the essential question from the inception of the design to the execution of its final details. The colour of the concrete, intentionally darkened to charcoal, blends further to the hilly landscape. The layering of the irregular geometry of the building relates to the rock formation of the surroundings. So yes, it’s both inspired by and intended as an offering to this very special site.’

The Chapel of Sound’s programme includes a semi-outdoor amphitheatre, an outdoor stage, viewing platforms, a rehearsal room and supporting spaces. Researching natural spaces where the sound reverberates, such as caves, the architects sought to compose a structure that is functional and fit for its purpose, but also feels at home in its context, sitting respectfully among nature; all the while creating a striking piece of design too. 

Chapel of Sound seen among greenery from above

‘We were very aware of the responsibility we had to contribute a thoughtful structure that fits naturally into such a unique landscape,’ they say. ‘We wanted to create something different, and more importantly, something meaningful. We are now at a time that the question of our relationship with nature as human beings is more acute than ever. Can we be humble enough to hear what nature is murmuring to us? The symphony of nature is what we really wanted people to experience here.’

The team drew inspiration from ideas of spirituality and the relationship between music and humanity, places of performance and more. But the surprises that might emerge from the building’s use and life have equal value for the architects. ‘Surprises in the enigmatic quality of the space, the way in which light, sound, wind, rain – these natural phenomena – converge inside the building. That goes beyond what we had imagined in the drawings and models,’they say.

Li Hu and Huang Wenjing have been working towards an approach that does not favour ‘Eastern’ or ‘Western’ architecture, avoiding perceived differences between the two. Instead, the pair prefer seeing architecture as ‘the power to connect people with each other, with nature, and with our own past and future’, as they aim to demonstrate with their new open-air concert hall, the Chapel of Sound. §

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