Building Team Awards, Holland Center for the Performing Arts: Nebraska's New Sound of Music

The Building Team behind Nebraska's Holland Center for the Performing Arts defied traditional restraints to create an acoustically superior concert hall.
August 11, 2010

In 1997 a study by the city of Omaha recommended building a new performing arts center to ease the crowded schedule at the Orpheum Theater. The Orpheum itself was in need of renovation, and its acoustics did not measure up to what the Omaha Symphony and other tenants had in mind. Even touring recording artists were starting to look past Omaha.

Six years ago, a nonprofit organization, Omaha Performing Arts, was created to manage fundraising for the renovation of the Orpheum and the construction of what was to become the Holland Center for the Performing Arts, named after local philanthropists Richard and Mary Holland.

But even before ground was broken on the 175,000-sf, $92-million Holland Center, Omaha Performing Arts' board and the center's Building Team did extensive research in the U.S. and Europe in an effort to make the new space acoustically perfect. They gained inspiration for the design from the Vienna's Musikverein Concert Hall, Dallas's Meyerson Concert Hall, Seattle's Benarova Hall, and the Lucerne Concert Hall in that Swiss city. The team included architects HDR of Omaha and Polshek Partnership of New York, acoustic consultants Kirkegaard Associates of Chicago, and theater consultants Fisher Dachs Associates of New York.

"What we've done in Omaha is blend the experience of a talented team of professionals to produce high-quality architecture and clarity of sound, not only for our client but for an entire community," said Dawn Schuette, project manager for Kirkegaard. "We've utilized some interesting techniques."

The center, which opened last October, has a 2,000-seat concert hall, a flexible 450-seat recital hall, and a semi-enclosed, open-air outdoor performance and event courtyard. Kirkegaard used a combination of both old and new acoustic concepts to create one of the most fine-tuned halls in the nation.

The Kirkegaard team considered reverberation, clarity, intimacy, warmth, and brilliance in its preconstruction acoustic analysis of the center. The "shoe box" geometry of the 23,000-sf concert hall allows sound to reverberate multiple times between the 16-inch masonry walls of the theater before being absorbed into the audience. This geometry, aided by diffusion banners on the sides of the hall and a sound-reflective canopy above the stage, directs the sound into four distinct areas that cover the whole audience. Sound and light lock vestibules around the entries and exits separate the hall from surrounding noisy spaces and allow quiet entry and exit during performances.

The center needed flexible space, since it would be home to the symphony, opera productions, touring musicians of every genre, and even musical theater. The above-stage canopy that controls reverberation is adjustable. A fixed, outer ring holds it in place while the inner panels can be changed in height and angle for different performances. The panels can be lowered almost to the stage for more intimate performances such as chamber music. It can rise for rock concerts and other shows where the ceiling's convex surface will allow sound to spread rather than be narrowed toward the seated patrons. The recital hall has a movable stage and seats to accommodate performances of different sizes.

The building's air handlers feed air from below the seats, a common feature of European performing arts centers. To keep sound in the performance space, a two-inch gap between the room and the surrounding structure keeps noise and vibration inside the isolated hall and away from the building's glass facade.

In addition to its role as a music venue, the Holland Center was designed to host community events in its outdoor performance space and lobby. The 4,500-sf black box recital hall and two-level lobby can be used as banquet and event space. This is in keeping with the community-based nature of the facility, which was financed primarily by private donations, with only 15% of the $92 million construction cost coming from a public sales tax.

From the start of its fund-raising efforts nearly six years ago, Omaha Performing Arts told potential donors its goal was to create a world-class performing arts venue for future generations of Nebraskans. Thanks to the efforts of a highly collaborative Building Team, they can now say that goal has been accomplished.