Architecture review: Miami's new concert hall, designed by Frank Gehry

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 23, 2011; 10:35 PM

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.

The performance hall, filled with light blue seats that suggest the colors of the ocean only a few blocks away, feels like an intimate tent, dominated by giant "sails," solid white curving forms on which video can be projected. They are several inches thick, made of plaster and form an essential part of Yasuhisa Toyota's acoustic design, which generates an astonishing quantity of sound (the NWS is still tweaking it with fabric panels and other elements). The steeply raked seating is arrayed snugly around the stage and places the audience in intimate proximity to the musicians. Even the farthest seat is no more than 13 rows from the stage. It is not quite a "theater in the round," but it comes very close.

On a weekday evening earlier this month, the young musicians were exploring the possibilities of their new home, rehearsing for a performance of Mussorgsky's "Pictures at an Exhibition." Overhead, videos commissioned from the faculty and students of the University of Southern California filled the giant sails while spotlights picked out individual players during solos. As the musicians played Maurice Ravel's orchestration of Mussorgsky's popular suite, a farmer slowly trudged with his ox, cartoon chicks burst from their shells and raced through space, and little vignettes about people in an art gallery played out on the billowing sculptural panels.

Other orchestras have experimented with efforts to make the concert hall more democratic and more contemporary in its engagement with media. Most have failed. With a few notable exceptions, concert halls in the round have failed. And video close-ups and film usually feel contrived and distracting. The difference, in Gehry's new space, is that it all comes together in a unified whole. The video feels like an integral creation, and it raises the possibility that a new, hybrid art form might emerge from this kind of effort. The lighting, designed by Cirque du Soleil veteran Stefan DeWilde, is professional, unobtrusive and tasteful. And the acoustical liveliness of the hall should put the nail in the coffin of an idea that gained force over the last half-century: that only a rectangular hall can offer the proper clarity, accuracy and warmth of sound.

At the back of the concert hall, Gehry has created a sophisticated control booth clad with square glass windows and panels of shiny white plastic, which suggests the architecture of a 1950s research park, a clean, sleek exercise in Cartesian order. Inside are work stations for a dozen or more people, filled with computer screens and control panels for the high-definition cameras, video and lighting. Rather than hide the control booth, the way projectionists are hidden in a movie house, the architect has created a visual reminder of the depth of the New World Symphony's investment in technology, which also includes wiring the entire building for Internet2, the new generation of Internet connecting educational, nonprofit and research institutions.

For the first time, that technology does not feel like an invasion into the 19th-century concert space, but an essential element of a newly emerging entertainment form. This may be horrifying to traditionalists. There is no distance between the listener and the music. The quantity of sound the hall develops suggests the enveloping, even overwhelming sound of music heard through headphones or ear buds. The video grabs the attention, making it difficult at times to find an objective remove from the details of the music. The fourth wall, whatever remained of that supposedly off-putting imaginary barrier between audience and spectacle, is now entirely shattered.

But it is part of a larger strategy. While the New World Symphony will continue to present traditional concerts, they will also offer cabaret-style performances. Smaller satellite stages surrounding the main one will allow for evenings that mix orchestral, chamber music and solo performances. Some evenings will be devoted to three short half-hour performances, each costing $2.50, targeted at the flaneurs in flip-flops and club-hopping tourists who swarm Lincoln Road in the evening. Working closely with NWS's founder and music director, Michael Tilson Thomas, Gehry has designed a building sexy enough on the outside to further the orchestra's outreach mission and flexible enough on the inside to explode the old concert format.

Gehry gives Tilson Thomas much of the credit for the revolutionary rethinking of the musical presentation. But Gehry has stamped the building not just with his distinctive formal whimsy, but with his insight into what might be called the ergonomics of cultural institutions. Like Walt Disney Concert Hall, another collaboration with the acoustician Toyota in Los Angeles, New World Center also allows natural light to flow into the concert space. It may seem like a small detail, but natural light radically changes the cloistered feeling of the concert hall, and it's one of those details that shows Gehry at his best. It reminds one of his clever use of railings in rooms he designed for the Art Gallery of Ontario. The railings serve a dual function, keeping people away from the art, but giving them a place to lean while they study it. He seems to love the old way of doing things enough to ask, "Why can't it be a little better? A little more comfortable and pleasant?"

And the entire form of the structure, with its Gehry-esque elements contained inside the glass box, suggests a happier balance between fantasy and function than has been seen in some of his more recent buildings. The strange torquing forms are still there, but they don't inhabit the city like alien sculptural objects. They beckon you in and make you want to know more. And thus they give architectural form to one of the essential articles of faith among people who love classical music: If only people would give it a chance, they will be converted. Even better, the twisting forms also contain usable space, practice rooms and rehearsal studios. Gehry points out that they are also non-structural features, and thus much less expensive than branding the building's exterior with the trademark Gehry curves. They can also be removed, leaving the entire lobby space open. But it's difficult to imagine anyone suggesting that.

It took American orchestras 50 years to reach the level of irrelevance most now enjoy. The New World Symphony, with members that are young and idealistic, is not like other orchestras. It is not unionized, its mission is primarily education not entertainment, and it has a dynamic leader. Much of what the orchestra is doing can't be imitated. But in the design of its new concert hall, the NWS has made a radical commitment to integrating classical music into a diverse urban landscape and forging new entertainment forms.

If this model prevails, much will be lost. There was dignity to the old orchestral concert - its rituals and formality, its basic offer of a private aesthetic journey through the abstract landscape of pure sound. The grand, old orchestral halls that contained this ritual cannot and should not be adapted to do what the New World Symphony is doing. But Gehry's concert hall is convincing even to a skeptic. There is hope for this music yet, in a future very different from, but not worse than, the past, and architecture will be fundamental to finding the way.


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