Posted Jan 16 2024 | By Axel Burrough

Beacon Hall and its roots in Levitt Bernstein’s portfolio of auditoria

Levitt Bernstein’s first auditorium design was the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester, completed in 1976. The most recent is the new Bristol Beacon concert hall in Bristol, which opened in November 2023. The first was a theatre-in-the-round for an audience of 750; The last is a concert hall with a potential audience capacity of nearly 2,200, depending on the set-up. Between these two very different spaces there have been a variety of projects whose architectural solutions nevertheless incorporate many consistent themes developed in the search for that elusive target – a fine relationship between audience and performer. Many of the findings from previous projects have been applied to Beacon Hall.

Shoebox vs vineyard

Modern concert hall design tends to follow two models – shoebox or vineyard. “Shoebox” describes a long, tall and relatively narrow room, usually with side balconies, and with shallow overhangs. Orchestras as we know them were designed to fit these halls as much as the halls were designed to accommodate the orchestras of the time – it was a symbiotic relationship probably influenced by spans readily achievable with timber trusses. “Vineyards” are a more modern invention, made possible by the development of steel technology: wider halls, typically with the platform positioned more centrally, surrounded by terraces of seating on all sides.

Early in the feasibility process we noticed that the dimensions of the enclosing walls of Bristol Beacon’s main hall were uncannily similar to two of the most revered late 19th century shoebox halls – Vienna Musikverein and Boston Symphony Hall. Despite the slightly lower height it still seemed likely that hidden within the old building was the potential for a hall with very fine acoustics for unamplified music, but the restricted width ruled out a vineyard-style design.


The new Beacon Hall, however, is unlike historic shoebox halls in that only a small proportion of the shows presented are unamplified symphonic concerts. Amplified events, such as rock, pop and comedy predominate. The ambience expected can vary enormously, and the shows invite very different audience reactions. So modern halls are functional hybrids, and the challenge when designing a contemporary auditorium for music is to be equally welcoming to the calm and studious as to the rowdy and raucous

Acoustics and ambience

Whereas the success of the monocultural symphonic hall of the past was judged by the beauty of its “natural” acoustic for unamplified orchestral and choral work, a modern concert hall must also excel for amplified events, where the quality of the sound emanating from speakers is not reliant on blending within the volume of the room; in other words for such events a “dead” acoustic is preferred to a “live” acoustic. This is achieved in many ways, for example by the addition of absorption, when needed, in the form of drapes and banners.

At Beacon Hall greater height might ideally have been preferred, but was not an option. At King’s Lynn Corn Exchange, however, we were able to raise the roof by two metres, while maintaining the visual effect of the market hall’s original volume with an acoustically transparent ceiling of expanded metal, lit to simulate the original glass roof. The void above this ceiling contains ducts and retractable absorption, which varies the reverberance of the hall.

These technical interventions may resolve the requirement for variable acoustics, but do not address the issue of ambience. A very large, grand volume may sound wonderful, and may even look great, but may not engender the atmosphere required for more participatory events, where audiences feed off their shared excitement and involvement. There is a tendency to think large volumes should sound echo-y, like a cathedral, potentially creating a mis-match that drains the space of intensity. This is an area where we have tried to apply some of the experience gleaned from designing intimate spaces to the design of larger concert halls.

Papering the walls with people

This phrase, along with the search for intimacy, was regularly used by the Royal Exchange Theatre. It is a desirable outcome for playhouses, but not associated with concert halls, where volume and spaciousness are valued over intimacy. However, the kind of shows promoted at Beacon Hall would benefit from a more direct and personal relationship between performer and audience than many modern concert halls – particularly of vineyard form – can provide. The design of the side balconies is crucial in this respect. People sit two rows deep on two levels, so that from any part of the auditorium one is aware of the presence of a throng. For the sightlines to work the side balconies have steep rostra and perch chairs, as first introduced at the Royal Exchange Theatre, and inspiring other architects at the more recent Stratford and Bridge theatres. They also step down along the length of the hall towards the stage. The eye of someone in a rear balcony is drawn towards the stage, and conversely, from the stage the balconies appear like arms reaching out to embrace the furthest members of the audience. The density of seating in the side balconies unifies the audience, something which is hard to achieve in vineyard form, when they are separated into small groups on terraces with walls on at least two sides.

Style and proportion

Historic theatres and concert halls tend to be covered by ornament and decoration. This was of course the fashion of the time, but it also achieves other purposes. Large areas of blank unadorned wall are the enemy of intimacy and sound quality. The decoration in old halls breaks down blank areas into busier proportions that resemble the effect of the audience itself, creating a homogeneity of scale and more spacious soundstage. At Beacon Hall the curved balcony front panels are also designed to scatter sound reflections, but their scale is also deliberate, being divided into small sections that mirror the proportions of the people behind them. The front edge is kept as thin as possible, with ducts pushed back from the leading edge. Where a balcony front is a deep sweep reflecting light back from the stage there is a tendency for the audience behind to be relegated, like little heads peeping above a parapet. The wish is for them to be in the room, rather than behind a wall, and the scale and proportions of the balcony fronts play an important role in unifying the audience.

Tents vs rooms

“Room acoustics” is the phrase often used to describe the sound quality of a concert hall. The word “room” is not an accident, as the audience hear sound created by orchestral instruments, modulated by the reverberance of the room in which they are playing. It does not work in the open air. However, in the search for the volume required for the “bloom” desired for many orchestral works, these rooms can become very large. Often architects try to minimise the scale and height by the introduction of sails or panels that disguise the full volume of the room. Such spaces, where one has no appreciation of a ceiling, can be characterised as “tents”. We, on the other hand, prefer rooms, in which there is a clear sense of enclosure. And we avoid bland, grand, sweeping features which prioritise architectural style while diminishing the audience. The aim is for the auditorium to be a place where people want to gather and participate, rather than simply a grand architectural vision to be admired. We expect Beacon Hall to have two modes: a smart version for orchestral events when blackout is unnecessary, the house lights may be partially “up”, and where features such as speaker arrays are relegated so that the room feels calm and uncluttered; and a more studio-inspired version when the hall equally happily accommodates all the technical wizardry that make performances so spectacular.

Show your workings

Within these rooms we have always been happy to display the technical elements so necessary in modern performance spaces. Some architects try to hide lighting galleries behind screens and flaps, whereas we see them as an intrinsic feature of the design. This started with the Royal Exchange Theatre, where absolutely nothing is hidden, and a central lighting “basket” hangs from the ceiling over the stage. At the Wilde Theatre we designed a hexagonal feature hanging directly over the stalls seating – a form of technical chandelier. King’s Lynn Corn Exchange and LSO St Luke’s also display the lighting galleries, as does Beacon Hall. The Theatre Royal Bury St Edmunds, however, is a Grade 1 Regency theatre, which in 1819 would not have included a single pipe, wire or duct (apart from a stove flue) and a more discreet approach was taken in line with the principles of faithful restoration.

In other circumstances we believe that the highly sophisticated technical wizardry that must be included should be welcomed as part of the show. LSO St Luke’s and Beacon Hall share similarities in their approach, with columns supporting side balconies that extend upwards to support and stabilise the lighting galleries. At LSO St Luke’s the structural design is muscular, reflecting the fact that the columns also take the weight of a heavy roof independently from the fragile external walls. At Beacon Hall the columns are thinner and more articulated, inspired by the industrial and nautical character of Bristol’s Harbourside district. The columns within Beacon Hall also perform important architectural purposes by increasing the sense of enclosure, intimacy and intensity for the audience and creating geometric cohesion between the new internal structure and the historic walls.

Historic continuity

Beacon Hall features an entirely new auditorium within walls dating from 1867. These walls have been reclad internally in brickwork, both for acoustic reasons, but also to reinforce the concept that the new auditorium is a contemporary intervention within the pre-existing enclosure. The external walls have been a constant, while there have been five auditoria inserted within them, following fires in 1898 and 1945, and a voluntary modernisation in 1936. All but the 1936 version have left their marks on the building, and we have been keen to incorporate references. The organ screen remains as designed for the 1951 hall, albeit extended in height, as the upper half had been covered by the previous over-low stage canopy. The magnificent Harrison and Harrison restored organ, when voiced in 2024, should sound even better than before. The wall panelling to either side of the stalls is also from 1951, but it has been removed, stiffened up and restored to improve its acoustic qualities. Other panelling from 1951 has been reused, for example in the passages leading to the stalls. The arched brickwork at high level mirrors the shape of the original 1867 windows, and its textured patterning is a reference to the design of their stained glass. The 1951 stalls floor, made from west African muhuhu hardwood, has been reused in Lantern Hall. Throughout the building there are therefore clues to the continuous development of the Hall on its site.


One challenge regularly encountered when modernising old buildings for modern audiences is to improve their accessibility. Typically, the importance of a public building would have been marked by steps up to the entrance to set it apart from its more mundane neighbours. Bristol Beacon posed a huge challenge, as the site is set into a steep hill, with a difference in level between the Colston Street entrance to the Bridgehouse and the backstage exit onto Trenchard Street of around nine metres. The Beacon Hall stage is over seven metres above the main entrance, but still below the highest point of the surrounding site. The new foyer building, opened in 2009, follows the concept employed at Victoria Hall, Stoke-on-Trent. The new building contains the lifts that resolve the problems of accessing the multitude of levels in the old building. Inherent in Bristol Beacon’s design concept has been the introduction of a “plateau” which unites the levels of Beacon Hall stage and stalls crossover, Lantern Hall, the scene dock and the principal stalls entrance bridge from the Bridgehouse foyer. Lantern Hall’s floor is now 300mm higher than it was, enabling us to introduce a concrete floor over the existing timber which provides the essential sound separation between performance space and restaurant.

Where there were no lifts before construction of the new foyer, and no step-free access to the building, there are now four passenger lifts for the audience, one backstage lift, one get-in lift, two stage riser lifts and two platform lifts. The combination resolves the considerable challenge of providing step-free access to all parts of the building complex. It is also possible to operate each hall independently, while closing off unused parts of the building.

Although Bristolians have had to wait 14 years since the foyer was built to witness the transformation of Beacon Hall and the 1873 Lantern building, initial planning for a phased project, which started in 2001, has enabled all the pieces in a complex jigsaw to come together. The result is a unique multifaceted venue comprising three auditoria of different scales and architectural character all to the highest standards of acoustic design, technical capability, and accessibility.

Levitt Bernstein’s auditoria include: