Now that's entertainment!

New performing arts centers strive for greater individual identity, while providing flexibility to accommodate a mix of activities.
August 11, 2010

A dynamic entertainment market is prompting changes in the traditional approaches to the design and construction of performing arts centers, from concert halls to venues on college campuses.

Performing arts facilities are most successful when they provide a functional, friendly environment that enhances the audience's experience of the concert, play, or other event. These themes are reflected in 12 new projects reviewed by Building Design & Constructioneditors.

The lobby as theater

To Barton Myers, who heads a namesake Los Angeles architectural firm, the lobby represents the "theater before the theater."

"Performing arts centers are about a collective experience," says Myers. "They have the ability to bring people together in an intimate setting, whether it's 3,000 in Newark or 700 in Tempe."

Myers says the lobby's role during intermissions is to enhance the experience of the presentation. "You want to retain that energy — the mystique created by the performance," he says.

The lobby of the 88,000-sf Tempe (Ariz.) Center of the Arts, for which Myers's firm is design architect working with Architekton of Tempe, will, when completed in 2006, be flooded with natural light entering through folds and breaks in the roof. At night, the lighting level will be comparable to that of streetlights in a small village. The objective is to bring a feeling of the outdoors into the lobby at all times, Myers says.

The new lobby and entry promenade of Seattle's Marion Oliver McCaw Hall serve as an extension of the renovated 2,900-seat performance hall, home of the Pacific Northwest Ballet and Seattle Opera, bringing the ephemeral qualities of the performance space into the streetscape. Wendy Pautz, a principal with locally based project architect LMN Architects, says the Building Team's objective was "to introvert the experience of the performance so that it became an external element, as well as something that takes place within the confines of the room."

A row of nine stainless steel scrims, which span the entry promenade, intersects the lobby's five-story serpentine wall, which is made of transparent, low-iron glass. Compositions of choreographed color and light are projected onto and through the scrims, which Pautz says are intended to be "celebratory of the events that happen inside and that are available to the public." Two of the scrims penetrate the lobby, framing a four-story grand staircase.

To accommodate the lobby and promenade for the redeveloped former Seattle Opera House, the entire west façade of the building (part of Seattle's Civic Center, which includes the Space Needle and Experience Music Project) was cut away. The 295,000-sf project was completed last June at a cost of $127 million.

At the South Coast Repertory Theater in Irvine, Calif., a lobby now curves around the original building, completed in 1976, and its 78,000-sf addition. Irvine-based McLarand Vasquez Emsiek was architect of record, in association with Cesar Pelli & Associates, for the rep's $19 million expansion and renovation.

Principal Carl McLarand notes that the lobby of the original building had dark "very unwelcoming" glass that obscured views into it. The renovated lobby now has a clear glass wall that is unobstructed by mullions.

In Detroit, the old and new halls of the Max M. Fisher Music Center, completed last October, are joined by a new four-story atrium lobby. Diamond and Schmitt Architects of Toronto was the architect for the $60 million project, which included renovation of the 2,000-seat hall (home of the Detroit Sympathy Orchestra) and construction of the new 450-seat Music Box recital hall.

Principal Don Schmitt recalls attending a concert in the original building, known as the "Max." "I was amazed that at intermission most of the audience either remained in their seats or stood in the aisles," he says. He attributes this immobility to a lobby that was "minimal" and "uninviting."

A key challenge for Schmitt's firm was to sensitively integrate the original building, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, with a contemporary design that would not overwhelm it. "Restoration and respect were critical," he says. Nearly a century after the original hall's construction in 1919, Schmitt adds, the Building Team "wanted an addition that speaks to our time, but co-exists with the old hall."

This transition was accomplished in the lobby with the aid of bronze detailing, including handrails that replicate features of historic downtown buildings. Schmitt sees bronze as "a warm metal that creates a lively, warm, and friendly atmosphere." Two openings created in the lobby walls provide glimpses of the original building's steel columns, recalling Detroit's industrial roots.

Halogen lighting was used to add sparkle and to reveal heritage qualities of the original building. Historic chandeliers with incandescent bulbs were restored. Additional lights concealed in the fixtures were aimed at the ceiling to highlight plaster detailing.

Exterior noise infiltration is a problem as performing arts venues move back downtown, says Russ Cooper of Jaffee Holden Acoustics, Norwalk, Conn., the project's acoustical engineer. To combat street noise, fire escape doors of the original hall were replaced with acoustic doors. A similar type of door was specified to keep lobby intermission noise from passing into a theater where another event might be in progress.

Eye on the bottom line

"One of our mandates was to create a facility that stretches beyond its physical dimensions to influence the cultural and, to a certain extent economic, make-up of Midtown Detroit," Schmitt says. "We needed to create a facility that had all the amenities and remained true to the original design of the building and its urban environment." The Fisher Music Center and the nearby renovated Fox Theater are elements of the rejuvenation of Detroit's downtown Woodward Corridor.

The Tempe, Irvine, and Detroit projects are examples of a shift toward multiple-space facilities and away from "one size fits all" centers. The Detroit project, for example, is expected to broaden the traditional classical music audience that attends its performances.

"Performing arts centers are becoming more conscious of the business aspects of their operations, as well as their technical performance," McLarand says. "Theaters have to figure out how to be profitable. Having two or three theaters with a single infrastructure is a good idea, because you can divide the costs."

Arts organizations in larger cities have outgrown the generic multipurpose facilities that were built in the '50s, '60s, and '70s, says Joshua Dachs, a principal with theater design specialist Fisher Dachs Associates Theatre Planning & Design, New York. He points to Miami, whose Cesar Pelli-designed Performing Arts Center of Greater Miami will be completed in 2005, as an example.

"The local orchestras and opera and ballet companies outgrew the scheduling capabilities of the existing facilities," says Dachs. The new performing arts center complex will contain three "purpose-built" performance halls: a 2,200-seat symphony hall, a 2,480-seat ballet opera house, and a 200-seat black box theater. The complex will also include educational space and a café located in a restored historic Art Deco tower on the site.

When it opens this fall as the cultural component of the new Time Warner Center mixed-use development in New York's Columbus Circle, the 160,000-sf Jazz at Lincoln Center will house three performance venues, as well as education, broadcast, and recording facilities, all designed specifically for jazz, says Issei Horikoshi, project manager for Raphael Viñoly Architects, New York. The venue also contains a hall of fame designed by the Big Apple's David Rockwell. The facility is so jam-packed with music and education spaces that the Jazz Center's offices, also designed by Viñoly, had to be located across the street.

The $128 million facility includes a 1,100-sf main concert theater, a more informal 600-seat room that looks out over Central Park through an 86x60-sf glass cable-net wall, and a 140-seat nightclub, which offers a similar park view. Although jazz is at the center's core, the main concert theater is flexibly designed to accommodate opera, dance, theater, film, and orchestra.

Few cities can support the construction of single-purpose halls these days, says architect Barton Myers. "Pure concert halls [also] must be able to accommodate other types of performances. Every space now really has to be designed to be a revenue producer. Lobbies, for example,are wonderful for parties and other events."

That's what the city of Santa Clarita, Calif., and the College of the Canyons, a local community college, are doing. College officials had been seeking financing to build a new performing arts center for 16 years. With a $2.4 million contribution from the city, the college was able to double the size of the multipurpose auditorium portion of the center, scheduled for completion in June, to 950 seats, says college president Dr. Diane Van Hook. Under the guidance of construction manager Klassen Corporation Architecture & Construction, Bakersfield, Calif., the rounded, two-story glass lobby of the $19 million facility was enlarged by 25% to accommodate special events. Spencer/Hoskins Associates, Altadena, Calif., was the architect.

More emphasis is being placed on "front of the house" elements, says Scott Georgeson, AIA, associate with architect Holabird & Root, Chicago. "Theaters are trying to get audiences to come earlier and stay later," Georgeson says. This was part of the motivation behind the firm's design of the lobby and an outdoor balcony space of a new 29,000-sf performing arts center at Aquinas College in Grand Rapids, Mich., which opened last December. The lobby and balcony of the two-story building overlook a picturesque view of a wooded ravine. "In part, the idea was to get the audience there on a nice summer evening to enjoy the setting," says Georgeson.

A partnership between the college and Circle Theater, a local community theater group, and local Catholic secondary schools, the thrust-stage theater holds 410 in arena seating. A 180-seat black box theater doubles as a rehearsal hall.

Paul Westlake, Jr., managing principal of Cleveland-based architect Westlake Reed Leskosky, is seeing performance arts center projects developed in conjunction with arts education programs, enabling a facility to receive funds allocated for arts education. He notes that facilities are tapping into new revenue streams by accommodating events such as lectures and receptions.

For example, the Tempe Center of the Arts will have a main hall seating 650, a small studio theater accommodating 250, and an art gallery/new media center. A 3,500-sf multipurpose room is intended as a space for events as diverse as meetings, rehearsals, banquets, and wedding parties.

In some areas, single-purpose facilities are being built to enhance the "venue inventory" in a particular marketplace, says Dachs. In Houston, the completion in 2002 of the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts, a 2,650-seat performance hall designed by New York's Robert A. M. Stern Architects and locally based Morris Architects, principally for Broadway series shows and popular entertainment, frees up dates for the existing multipurpose Jones Hall, which used to host these events, as well as the symphony and other performances. A second 500-seat theater in the arts center accommodates a range of community organizations, which previously had no venue available to them, says Dachs.

Back-of-the-house upgrade

Behind-the-scenes spaces are getting designers' attention. "Although the back of the house may not be as elegant as the front, we try to make it attractive and functional so the staff and visiting theater people feel at home," Myers says. "This produces a terrific esprit de corps. The days of shoving people into a windowless basement hopefully are over."

Back-of-the-house facilities at the Max M. Fisher Music Center include a full catering kitchen, practice rooms, and dressing rooms. Temperature-controlled storage for musical instruments helps to keep wood instruments, especially valuable violins, in good condition. The original theater had no such on-site storage.

Some performing arts centers, particularly those in high-cost locations, store stage sets and other major items off site.

Chicago's 1,500-seat Joan W. and Irving B. Harris Theater for Music and Dance, which opened last November, shares its back-of-the-house space with Gehry's imposing Millennium Park band shell, which opens this summer. The arrangement works well, according to Mark Wagner, senior VP in the Chicago office of Clark Construction Group, the dance theater's general contractor.

The dance theater uses the spaces from fall through spring, while the band shell will use the spaces in the summer. Occupying five levels within the dance theater, the back-of-the-house spaces on the east side contain dressing rooms, toilets, rehearsal spaces, and offices, all of which tie into the band shell, says Gary Ainge, principal with the dance theater architect Hammond Beeby Rupert Ainge, Chicago. The west side of the theater contains mechanical spaces and a loading dock, which also serves the two venues

Restoring visibility

A major exterior redesign of the South Coast Repertory Theater was needed because the visibility of its two-story building was eroded as taller buildings were constructed nearby. "Theaters are commercial ventures and need to sell tickets," McLarand says. "They want a greater sense of identity and increased visibility. That's what we attempted to do with the addition and remodel. The building now has the luster of an old New York theater."

The project included the rooftop-level installation of bold letters spelling out theater's full name and replacing the "SCR" acronym that previously identified the building.

Before the completion of the Stevie Eller Dance Theatre last July, the University of Arizona was known to have one of the top dance programs — and some of the worst facilities — in the country, according to the father of a prospective dance student, who funded a sizable portion of the project. With its 300-seat theater, the building strikes a distinctive pose on campus. An opaque scrim of rusted woven wire fabric undulates down the side and under a second-story dance studio, a rectangular glass box, which is open to the street, itself a billboard for the dance program, says Donna Barry, project manager for the Phoenix office of architect Gould Evans.

Intended as a secondary exit from the dance studio, a catwalk, which runs behind the scrim and leads to the lobby, is often used by the dancers. "It's exciting because you can see the dancers running across the catwalk," says Barry. "This theater is all about movement."

If all else fails, hire Gehry.

A striking image was clearly a prime requirement of Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y., for its Richard B. Fisher Center for the Performing Arts, which opened in early 2003 last year.

The curving, 110,000-sf facility is the only Frank Gehry-designed performing arts center on the East Coast. It houses two theaters; four rehearsal studios for dance, theater, and music; and support facilities.

The college sought an architect who could fit a large, complex structure into Bard's rural setting, says spokesman Mark Primoff. "The magic that Gehry brought to the project was to create a building that is both beautiful and inspires those who work in it," he says.

Bard wanted a facility that would, says Primoff, "inspire risk-taking performances and provocative programs in orchestral, chamber and jazz music and theater, dance, and opera." Bard hired Gehry before the opening of his Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, so the college was able to bask in the glow of recognition he received for that project.

The annual Bard Music Festival also will benefit from the facility. In previous years, Bard has needed to erect a large tent for large orchestral presentations.

The center's development is part of a larger effort to develop the Hudson River valley as a destination for cultural tourism.

Marion Oliver McCaw Hall

Seattle, Wash.

Architect: LMN Architects

Part of a $127 million renovation, the west façade of the former Seattle Opera House was cut away to accommodate a spacious new lobby and entry promenade.

South Coast Repertory Theater

Irvine, Calif.

Architect: McLarand Vasquez Emsiek & Partners and Cesar Pelli & Associates

An inviting, redesigned lobby now serves both the original facility and a 78,000-sf addition, and allows greater visibility into the theater.

Max M. Fisher Music Center

Detroit, Mich.

Architect: Diamond and Schmitt Architects

A new 450-seat recital hall was sensitively integrated with the 85-year-old home of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra.

Performing Arts Center of Greater Miami

Miami, Fla.

Architect: Cesar Pelli & Associates

When completed in 2005, this 570,000-sf complex features three "purpose built" performance halls and a renovated Art Deco office tower.

Jazz at Lincoln Center

New York, N.Y.

Architect: Raphael Viñoly Architects

Designed specifically for jazz, the 160,000-sf space houses three performance venues, education, broadcast space, and a hall of fame.

College of the Canyons Performing Arts Center

Santa Clarita, Calif.

Architect: Spencer/Hoskins Associates

Constructed in partnership with the city of Santa Clarita, the center's 950-seat, multipurpose auditorium is accompanied by an experimental theater.

Aquinas College Performing Arts Center

Grand Rapids, Mich.

Architect: Holabird & Root

A partnership with a local community theater, and local Catholic schools, the center contains a 410-seat theater with arena seating and thrust stage.