In 1993, a group of prominent orchestra administrators issued a report predicting the obvious: doom and destruction unless the nation's symphonies radically changed the way they did business. In the future, according to "Americanizing the American Orchestra," orchestras would have to consider "collaborative efforts with other art forms, interactive audience projects, the use and adaptation of technology, and other departures from business as usual." It was a badly written, sanctimonious, controversial document, and most American orchestras simply ignored it. To the extent that they adopted any of its recommendations, orchestras did so half-heartedly, amateurishly and without real faith in the underlying premise: That audiences craved a new kind of concert, updated for the 20th century.
The opening Tuesday of a new concert hall in Miami Beach, designed by Frank Gehry, is the first architectural evidence that any one was listening to the Cassandras of the early 1990s. For decades, there has been a general but vague sense that the concert hall needs to be turned inside out, that audiences want a more direct engagement with the music, that to compete with television, video and popular music, something radical had to happen to the old shoe-box symphony hall, with its orderly rows of seats and formal distance between listener and musician.
Gehry's concert hall for the New World Symphony, an elite training orchestra that is one of the most innovative musical organizations in the country, is the first American concert space built from the ground up to include sophisticated video, theatrical-style lighting and flexible stage space that can accommodate not just an orchestra, but soloists and chamber groups. It also happens to be one of Gehry's best buildings in years, an introspective structure that gathers the wisdom of his earlier work on concert halls in Los Angeles and in upstate New York.
Located just off Miami Beach's Lincoln Road, a rehabilitated corridor of art deco architecture and elegant shopping, New World Center is a mini-campus, with a Gehry-designed parking structure, a 756-seat concert hall and a 2.5-acre urban park (designed by the New York-based West 8 firm). The parking garage, which is clad in steel mesh and glows at night with saturated color LEDs, is no better or worse than any other parking structure. And the park, which Gehry was asked to design before a dispute with the city of Miami Beach soured him on the prospect, is overstuffed with some ungainly sculptures that suggest a sci-fi invasion of metal insects and block views of the hall.
But the centerpiece of the campus is Gehry's $160 million concert space, and it works brilliantly. An 80-foot-high wall of glass gives dramatic views into the interior of the building, where Gehry's signature forms, twisting and organic, are seen as if growing inside a terrarium. The main facade of the building also includes a 7,000-square foot projection wall, where audiences in the adjacent park can watch live "wall-casts" of what's happening inside. Finally, an orchestra isn't just broadcasting its performances on a temporary screen, but has created a state-of-the-art sound and projection system integrated into the design of the building. The entrance also includes a few sculptural forms to remind everyone it's a Gehry building, and a side wall has an odd but appealing curving flap over windows that allow light into the concert space.