The Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre rises like three crashing waves cresting above Interstate 75 in northwest Atlanta. The $145 million center is the new home of the Atlanta Opera and a symbol of the growth and sophistication of Cobb County and Atlanta's northwest area. It's also situated strategically outside downtown's traffic-snarled streets, yet close enough to downtown to be accessible to urban arts lovers.
“It is a growing community but there is not a whole lot of development in that particular area yet,” said Jim Van Duys, project architect with Atlanta's Smallwood, Reynolds, Stewart, Stewart & Associates. “We wanted a dynamic shape that would draw people into the facility and create a visual statement from the highway and also give it a sculptural quality. Atlanta's been growing to the north for many, many years and this is a neighborhood that was a bedroom community 30 years ago. Now that it's fully a part of the city, the community wanted a state-of-the-art performing arts facility to reflect that change.”
The building itself soars 114 feet above a formerly bare 16-acre site that once held an Eastern Airlines facility. It can be seen by 230,000 drivers crossing Interstates 75 and 285 daily. A mixed-use development is planned next to the theater, and developer John A. Williams, who donated $10 million for the construction of the Cobb Energy Centre, hopes the institution will be an economic engine for the entire region.
According to Van Duys, the Cobb-Marietta Coliseum & Exhibition Authority committed early to raising enough money to ensure a first-class project. Cobb County approved $57 million in bonds that will be repaid by a hotel-motel tax. The nearby Cobb Galleria Mall gave $11 million and the nonprofit Woodruff Foundation donated $3 million. The $10 million that Williams himself donated gave him the naming rights of the 2,750-seat theater. When the project was nearly completed, local utility Cobb Energy purchased the naming rights for the whole building for $20 million.
“It was really a coming together of the civic, philanthropic, and arts communities,” Van Duys said.
The center's 10,000-sf ballroom can host everything from weddings to business meetings. A grand alabaster staircase that can be seen through the building's glass atrium. A commissioned mural called “The Nine Muses” by Jimmy O'Neal can be seen through the glass wall of the lobby. Ten 600-pound gold and Mirano glass chandeliers brighten the interior.
“The material richness of what they accomplished was very unique and done with elegant but simple elements,” said Building Team Awards judge Paul Westlake, FAIA, a principal of Cleveland-based Westlake Reed Leskosky, which specializes in performing arts design. “Their consideration of the lobby as an important, iconic, social space was beautifully executed. The Murano fixtures and the interactive artwork were used inventively in the lobby and enhanced its purpose as a social space that was unified through the tiers of the dominant staircase.”
The fully funded budget did not, however, keep the team from weathering the usual difficulties of such an intricate project. It was not until after construction had begun that the Atlanta Opera decided to make the center its new home. As a result, a larger pit area and some acoustic modifications from consultant Kirkegaard had to be designed in to make the space more acceptable for both amplified and unplugged music. Since its opening in January the center has hosted opera, Broadway shows, live comedy, and concert tour stops from artists such as Kelly Clarkson.
The design team also wanted to create a more intimate space with the Williams Theater and allow the exterior to have a more sculptural quality that was not dominated by the theater's flyloft. By utilizing screenwalls and keeping the theater smaller, the design team was able to create a building with different views from four different sides and no real “back” facing any of the drivers seeing it from either highway.
Inside the Williams Theater, a four-stage ceiling element unites lighting, acoustics, and staging that guides the audience's view directly to the proscenium stage. The theater's underfloor air distribution system enhances the facility's acoustics and sight strategy and provides optimal comfort, sightlines, and sound quality to the audience.
“At every stage of detail they took no intellectual shortcuts,” said BTA judge Westlake. “The lighting, curtain wall, and artwork were all invested in. You could tell that the design team really thought and cared about how everything was assembled in the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre.”
Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre
Submitting firm: Smallwood, Reynolds, Stewart, Stewart & Associates (architect/interior architect)
Owner/developer: Cobb-Marietta Coliseum & Exhibit Authority
Structural engineer: Walter P Moore
M/E/P engineer: Newcomb & Boyd Consulting Engineering Group
Acoustician: Kirkegaard Associates
Theater consultant: Theatre Projects Consultants
Lighting designer: CD+M Lighting Design Group
General contractor: Hardin Construction Co.
Construction manager: The Facility Group
Area: 180,000 gross sf
Construction time: February 2005 to June 2007
Delivery method: CM at risk
Total cost: $145 million