Rightsizing Performing Arts Venues

Classic design and advances in adaptability are helping Building Teams create new performance spaces that are flexible enough for any production.
August 11, 2010

Back in 2002, before the Building Team working on the design of the Schermerhorn Symphony Center in Nashville, Tenn., even began concept drawings for the 197,000-sf neo-classical symphony building, the architects, engineers, planners, owner representatives, and construction professionals took a trip to Europe for inspiration. Among the classical symphony halls they visited were the Concertgebau in Amsterdam, the Tonhalle in Zurich, and the Musikvereinsalle in Vienna.

The Schermerhorn Symphony Center is a part of a design movement that not only takes advantage of the traditional strengths of classic performing arts spaces, but also augments them with the latest in contemporary technology to create a better experience for audiences.

The interpretive center and museum at the Bethel Woods Center for the Arts will host films, receptions and events, and performances. Adaptable facilities that allow a greater variety of fundraising and performance are a must for the new generation of arts spaces.

All Bethel Woods images by Kevin G. Reeves

A similar strategy has been used by Westlake Reed Leskosky of Cleveland, Ohio, to take advantage of the natural features of the site of the 1969 Woodstock Music Festival in Bethel, N.Y., for the Bethel Woods Center for the Arts, a 16,800-seat pavilion with an events center and museum on site. In the next year the center will add more buildings that will total 20 structures stretched across 1,700 acres. The pavilion opened last month and has already hosted acts as diverse as the New York Philharmonic, jazz virtuoso Wynton Marsalis, and teenybop idol Ashlee Simpson.

Designing a space that can accommodate amplified and natural sound, adapt for receptions and other

All Bethel Woods images by Kevin G. Reeves

fundraising events, and still maintain the highest sound quality are three keys to designing the rightsized performing arts center. Today's arts organizations and promoters demand multiple uses for their new facilities, whether it comes in the form of a symphony space with a rolling, removable seating floor or a pavilion that can comfortably accommodate rock concerts that seat 18,000 and still properly project a pops orchestra that plays unplugged to 4,800.

“You're presenting a completely live art form that only exists in the moment the audience witnesses it,” said Joshua Dachs, principal of theater planner Fisher Dachs Associates of New York, who worked on the Schermerhorn Symphony Center. “If you, as an audience member, don't feel that, then it's not compelling enough to pay to go to these performances.”

Bethel Woods: Back to the garden

The Bethel Woods Center for the Arts incorporates 37½ acres of Max Yasgur's farm in Sullivan County, N.Y. The pavilion, a copper-sheathed outdoor concert venue that seats 16,800 (4,800 under cover, 12,000 on the lawn), stands just out of sight of the natural concert bowl where 400,000 people took part in the Woodstock Music Festival of August 15-17, 1969.

The center's owner, cable television magnate Alan Gerry, a native of nearby Ferndale, is picking up almost the entire $70 million tab for the center. Gerry wants to turn economically depressed Sullivan County into a destination for cabins, bed and breakfasts, and the finest musical entertainment. On tap for the center's first season are Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, the Goo Goo Dolls, Counting Crows, and the New York Philharmonic.

Gerry has assuaged the fears of preservationists and local boards by organizing and promoting successful, peaceful concerts at the site (as well as buying up most of the surrounding property) throughout the '90s. The New York State Office of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation determined, however, that the site was “nationally significant” and asked that permanent construction not be placed within sight of the original natural amphitheater where the heavy timber stage of Woodstock was located. The pavilion is actually situated on a neighboring farm site that Gerry also purchased.

“All our new construction was placed either in back bowls or beyond a ridge where it could barely be seen from the original site,” said Paul E. Westlake, Jr., FAIA, managing principal of Cleveland-based Westlake Reed Leskosky and lead architectural designer for the project. “In addition to placement, they were concerned with the character of the buildings. They felt that they should reflect the rural aesthetic of the site and landscape.”

Westlake was the third architect Gerry hired for the Bethel Woods project. One of those dismissed was museum designer Richard Meier, whom Gerry sacked for turning in a concept that Gerry reportedly thought “looked like a flying saucer.”

No one could mistake Westlake's rustic design as too spacy. Westlake said the design for the pavilion, museum, and interpretive center (the major completed buildings on the site) has a “continuity with nature” and also a continuity between the building elements.

The DNA of the project includes gabled and hipped roofs sheathed in copper and cedar shingles, stone site and building walls, and cedar siding.

“Materials selection definitely was not just bottom-line oriented,” said Mike Dinapoli, project executive for general contractor Suffolk Construction, Boston. “We used western red cedar for the roofing and siding of some of the buildings. Many local stone masons worked on the job, and the stone all came from nearby fields and quarries. Their work certainly reflected that it wasn't just an assembly line approach.”

Using these design elements certainly fit the Bethel Woods Center for the Arts into the proper historic and rural place. But behind all the glue-laminated wood and Woodstock mementos lie innovations that made the center's buildings a perfectly modern fit for any performance.

Rightsizing Bethel Woods

The Schermerhorn Symphony Center in downtown Nashville, Tenn., takes up a city block across the street from the Gaylord Entertainment Center and the Country Music Hall of Fame. The ambitious new hall is part of a movement to bring more residents to downtown.

All images courtesy of the Nashville Symphony, except where noted.

A market study done before the design stage of the Bethel Woods project showed that the center could expect crowds of up to 30,000 for annual Woodstock reunion concerts (the first in the original festival bowl will be held next August) and also showed that events such as a recent jazz fest could draw up to 5,000. Thus, Westlake's first problem was designing the pavilion to fit various types of performance.

“The market study recommended that we build a pavilion that seated a total of 5,000 for the smaller events and then bring in a removable stage at the festival bowl for the larger ones,” Westlake said. “But then we figured why go to the expense of building the performers' support facilities, the audience facilities, and all the other equipment necessary for a concert, only to have to bring in a removable stage? We thought it would be better to increase the size of the pavilion and lawn area to create a more permanent facility and use the undercover portion without the lawn seating for the smaller events.”

A custom, reverberant orchestra shell, manufactured by Wenger Corporation of Owatonna, Minn., is composed of multiple, rolling towers that form side and rear walls. Adjustable overhead acoustical panels or “clouds” are suspended over the stage on 27 chain-hoisted motors. By changing the arrangements of the towers and the angle of the overhead panels, the orchestra shell can be reconfigured for symphony, chamber, and choral performances.

The Bethel Woods site still needed even smaller spaces for films about Woodstock, receptions and other fundraising events, and programming that would extend beyond a summer concert series. A natural amphitheater that seats 1,000 flanked by a terrace that accommodates 500 was built as a second stage for the pavilion, but it still didn't solve the problem of keeping the center viable in the cold New York winter.

To allow for indoor performances, the Bethel Woods Event Gallery and Interpretive Center, a 45-foot-tall roundhouse with an intricate engineered wood cupola and a removable stage, was also commissioned. Able to seat up to 500, it will open to the public later this year, followed in spring of 2007 by a Woodstock Museum that will seat up to 132 in a theater designed to show films about (or inspired by) the original event. In all, there are 127,166 gross sf of performance space and support space in the 17 completed buildings on the site.

“The byword was multi-usability,” Westlake said. “When we ended the process, the design team and the client were confident the site could host any type of performance they would ever be approached with. When you talk about rightsizing in this context, you have to remember 700,000 people went to the original Woodstock concert, 400,000 got in, and 150,000 actually paid. We're confident the new facilities are the right size.”

Nashville: Classical Music City

The rectangular “shoe box” Laura Turner
Concert Hall (right) seats only 1,872, but is equipped with a sophisticated variable acoustic system, 100 robotically controlled lighting fixtures, and 30 soundproof windows.

The Nashville Symphony faced a similar predicament about rightsizing when it began plans for its new symphony center in 1999. At the time, it was obvious to then music director Kenneth Schermerhorn and president and CEO Allan D. Valentine that any new home would need to fit into the neo-classical mold of Nashville's most well-known landmarks. But they also wanted to create a state-of-the art, acoustically superior concert space that would bring new prestige to the Grammy-nominated symphony and bring in more revenue through fundraising events.

Established neo-classical architect David M. Schwarz of Washington, D.C., was hired to design the $120 million, 197,000-sf granite, marble, and limestone building that occupies a full city block in Nashville. The almost-Greek exterior holds the 30,000-sf Laura Turner Concert Hall, four lobbies, the 3,000-sf Mike Curb Family Music Education Hall events space, and the symphony's offices. While Schwarz's vision solved the organization's space needs, it still didn't guarantee that it would have a state-of-the-art hall. So, after hiring the rest of the Building Team, they made the trip to Europe and looked to the past to create their future.

“We walked into those rooms and, especially in Vienna, were just struck by the intimacy,” said Dachs, the theater planner. “We knew then that our objective was to emulate the small scale of those great concert halls and make the volume as tiny as possible.”

By wedding the look of the historic symphony halls and the neo-classical exterior of the Schermerhorn Center, the team applied modern technology to classical architecture concepts such as choral seating. Operable windows, rare for a modern performance space, were specified: 30 soundproof windows were constructed using two- and three-inch panes of glass separated by 24 inches of dead air. A “shoe-box” design for the Laura Turner Concert Hall, which seats a relatively small 1,872, was also included in the program.

These elements helped the team build the acoustically superior hall they wanted with all the tried and true elements of the classic European halls.

“In most cases it helped enormously,” said Paul Scarbrough, principal of Norwalk, Conn.-based Akustiks, the acoustic consultant on the project. “The plasters, moldings, and cornices, all of the elaborate architectural details, actually helped us acoustically by providing diffusion or even scattering of sound around the room. It's hard to find modern analogs to those elements.”

Still, the European concert halls were almost all state-supported, making the smaller, more intimate rooms financially feasible, but building such a small hall raised some eyebrows at the Nashville Symphony. After all, the symphony had to sell those seats to turn a profit.

“We told them we want you to design the best room acoustically as possible,” symphony president and CEO Valentine said. “There was a minimum number that we would have pushed back from, somewhere in the 1,600-1,700 range, but there is a lot of debate about seat count. For me, the 1,800-2,200 seat level is safe. When you go above that, then at least the top 420 seats are really worthless. You can make the money up by selling tables, balcony-level seating, and other premiums.”

Making the classical modern

With the green light to make a rightsized, smaller hall, the Building Team set out to fit the latest acoustic and multiuse technology into the Laura Turner Concert Hall.

A two-inch acoustic isolation joint was designed around the rectangular hall to prevent any vibration from the offices or events spaces from entering the concert space. The windows, specifically designed to let in light but not sound, were tested under concert conditions. An automated sound-deadening system of acoustic draperies and absorption panels that can be quickly deployed along the walls was added to allow performers to tailor the reverberation and resonance of the space to their needs for amplified pops concerts and other non-symphonic events.

One of those modern features, removable seating that can convert the hall into a reception space or festival seating for standing room only concerts, came as an afterthought.

“We always have these summer pops concerts, and it never failed that it would rain or there'd be a plague of locusts or something, and almost off-handedly I asked, sometime in the summer of 2003, if we could somehow remove the seats and have events and summer concerts on the floor of the concert hall,” Valentine recalled.

Valentine's casual request became the basis for an innovative multiuse floor that rolls away with its 900 seats in a matter of hours and leaves a 5,770-sf cherry wood inlaid floor for banquets, ballroom dancing, and other fundraising events.

The system consists of eight motor-driven steel carriages, each spanning the full 76-foot width of the main floor and encompassing four rows of seats that move on rollers guided by rails on each side of the floor. The wagon adjacent to the stage rests on a hydraulic lift that lowers to a storage area below the main floor.

Valentine said the Nashville Symphony expects a payback of 5-10 years by hosting a greater variety of events and 35 private functions annually, thanks to the flat-floor conversion system.

“At first we were skeptical of adding a system like this that late in the process,” Dachs said. “But when we got down to the design of the system it really was a great addition, considering how well it performed in testing. We made a mockup of the system and tested it in a 30-year life cycle experiment, and it passed the full term.”

Dachs said they also used the mockup to test for markings on the cherry wood floor.

“It's remarkable,” said Dachs, “that a building so traditionally inspired still integrates the most contemporary, modern, and up-to-date technology and conceptual thinking.”

The Schermerhorn Symphony Center—named after the late music director Kenneth Schermerhorn, who died in 2005—is scheduled to open September 9 with a concert by the Nashville Symphony. The Bethel Woods Center for the Arts has already launched its inaugural concert season and expects to open its museum and interpretive center later this year.