Fred A. Bernstein

Daring Design in a Laid-Back City

Thanks to Rem Koolhaas, Porto, Portugal will never be the same

Published in The New York Times, June 19, 2005

THE Casa da Música, a futuristic concert hall in Porto, Portugal, arrived four years later than planned, and not without controversy. Its in-your-face design, by the Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas, is a jarring contrast to the city's gentle, tile-covered buildings. But as a tourist destination - with appeal to architecture and music lovers alike - the building can only mean good things for Porto, a city abounding with bargains. Hotel rooms under $80 are common, and delicious meals can cost less than $10. At the Casa da Música, which has a complete range of classical and jazz events, most events are under $25. That includes the chance to offer opinions on such unusual details as the glowing rubber armrests, walls of plywood with gold leaf patterning, and vast windows of corrugated glass behind the stages.

Porto has long been a tourist destination. Its port wine "lodges" - warehouses where companies like W.&J. Graham's and Lea & Sandeman offer tours and samples - make it a Portuguese equivalent of the Napa Valley. And lovers of modern architecture have been coming here for years. Álvaro Siza, a native son who won the Pritzker Prize in 1992, eight years before Mr. Koolhaas, has dotted the area with sleek, white concrete buildings.

But while Mr. Siza's buildings are sedate, Mr. Koolhaas's are provocative. Inside the Casa da Música, the smaller, 400-seat auditorium is sheathed in plywood dyed fire-engine red. During a recent performance by the Borodin Quartet, the sun set behind the musicians, creating a field of dark blue in a bright red frame - as bewitching as the Beethoven on the program. During a Saturday night concert by the Gulbenkian Orchestra, in the 1,300-seat main hall, the audience was admirably silent - there wasn't so much as a cough during the Sibelius and Mahler. (If the room had been darkened, however, people would be less likely to riffle through their programs).

The Casa da Música has already shifted Porto's center of gravity westward from its medieval quarter to the neighborhood around the Praca de Albuquerque, a lush circular park. Two blocks from the concert hall, the Tuela Porto Hotel, (351-2) 260 04747;, built in a 1960's modern style and recently renovated, is immaculate and comfortable. Double rooms are about $95, at $1.25 to the euro, including breakfast.

There are also plenty of affordable restaurants nearby. At Casa Pereira, about 100 yards from the Casa da Música, I had a delicious lunch of bacalhau (cod) cooked with onions and olives, with salad and crispy potatoes. Adding a bottle of mineral water and a glass of Portuguese wine brought the check to a big $7.50. For a fancier meal, take a taxi (they're cheap in Porto) to the Gaia neighborhood. Tromba Rija, Avenida Diogo Leite, 102, (351-2) 237-43762, features a buffet of almost indescribable lushness (the cheese table alone has 20 offerings, some of them astonishing). Beverages, including a selection of red and white ports and a homemade almond liqueur thinned with a squeeze of lemon, are included in the price (about $35).

Porto has a sparkling new subway system, with just two lines, and both stop at the Casa da Música. A double-decker tour bus also stops in front of the building. It makes a 90-minute loop through the city's most interesting neighborhoods; you can get on and off as often as you like, and the ticket, which you can buy on the bus and costs $12.50, is good on other public transport for 48 hours. For those who like to plan, the bus stops outside the Fundacão de Serralves (the contemporary art museum designed by Mr. Siza) as well as at Tromba Rija and the port wine lodges.

If you're in Porto for more than a day, you'll probably want to return to the Casa da Música - Avenida da Boavista, 604-610, (351-2) 201 20200 - several times. It's the kind of building that rewards second and third looks. Tickets are available at The Web site, which currently lists concerts through December, is in Portuguese, but is easy to use. Not so the building, which can be difficult to navigate. If you can't attend a concert, ask in the lobby about guided tours.