This city's symphony hall still awaits the ultimate acoustical exam, which will come next week with concerts inaugurating the orchestra's 66th season and the first in its new home. But already the building has passed major architectural tests with distinction.
Named after the benefactor who contributed nearly half of the building's $22 million cost (state and city governments supplied the rest), the Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall is an excellent piece of work from the rounded, brick-sheathed sculputural exterior to the balloon-scalloped plaster walls of the concert hall itself.
Although perhaps less splendid than it might have been -- the plain metal roof that replaced the glass and/or copper proposed in earlier, more expensive designs for the building's sweeping entrance canopy prompted one observer to remark, "It looks like the Hirshhorn with a skirt" -- the building exerts an emphatic, no-nonsense appeal. It also inserts a little bit of sleek romance into the Baltimore streetscape.
From the outside, perched upon an exposed, odd-shaped island bounded on three sides by curved, heavily traveled streets, the structure manages to command attention without being dissonant or domineering. Inside, that entrance canopy covers a carpeted lobby with two long, riser-less staircases and does service to a time-honored reason for concertgoing: to see and be seen. The columnless concert hall, which holds 2,467 comfortable seats and rises 66 feet at its greatest height, is a convincingly intimate space despite its size.
The building was designed by Pietro Belluschi and Jung/Brannen Associates. Of the two principal design stratagems for such buildings -- to hide the auditorium behind rectangular fac,ades (Carnegie Hall, for instance, or Edward Durrell Stone's Kennedy Center) or somehow to celebrate the function in the form (Charles Garnier's Paris Opera, Hans Scharoun's Berlin Philharmonic) -- these architects obviously chose the latter.
Their choice admirably fits both the shape and character of the site. Egg-shaped in plan, the building fills out most of a lot that would defy a conventional, rectilinear scheme, which, in any case, would have been inappropriate given an open-ended location at the very edge of the downtown street grid. The chief architectural embellishments visible from the symphony hall site are rather nondescript -- office buildings, modern apartment towers, parking lots. (Its most distinguished neighbor, the old gray-stone Mount Royal Station, is situated in a hollow and hidden by trees.)
Nonetheless, the architects made a handsome bow to Baltimore tradition by covering the building in a particularly winsome variety of iron-spot bricks. This also adds a bit of muscle to the oval form, which from several points of view looks like an improbably streamlined, impossibly inflated industrial smokestack. For all that, it retains a certain circumspect elegance.
Inside, in the apt description of its sound consultant (Robert Newman of Bolt, Beranek and Newman), the music hall is a "collage of curves and brushed surfaces." Architects and acoustical people alike assure us that the logic behind the hall's design is heavily determined by the need for sound reflective surfaces -- rough and curved, that is, as opposed to smooth and flat.
Hence the side walls of the auditorium are divided into a sequence of towering vertical scallops of varying allignment and lateral dimension, covered with heavy coats of rough-textured white plaster. Hence, too, the huge concrete acoustical "clouds" that dot the ceiling; the adjustible, wood-veneered fiberglass "clouds" that hover above the stage, and even the cascade of eyebrow forms on the side walls (called "down-kickers" in acousti-glish).
This is as it should be -- first things first. But the visual effect of this logic is quite stunning. The whiteness of the walls contrasts handsomely with the warmth of the wood paneling in the stage area, and the hall as a whole seems "futuristic" -- a sort of movie-set modern -- and a throwback to the elastic expressionism of German architecture in the early 1920s. The spatial drama, helped along no end by the massive sculptural forms of the balcony boxes, which move down the side walls like a march of slow-moving barges, is at once elegant, fantastical and straightforward, a nice if improbable mix.
Early in the game--building the hall has been an up-again, down-again affair for more than a decade -- some consideration was given to locating the structure near the Inner Harbor. This idea was dropped when Meyerhoff, a self-made real estate tycoon whose philanthropy has benefited countless Baltimore cultural institutions, purchased the lot in the Mount Royal area in 1972.
The location makes a lot of sense. The symphony hall adds to a cluster of cultural-educational institutions in the neighborhood: The Lyric Theater, where the symphony played until now, is located a block or so away, as is the Maryland Institute College of Art (which occupies Mount Royal Station and other nearby buildings) and the University of Baltimore. Furthermore, Meyerhoff, in collaboration with the Baltimore city planners, had the good sense to place a parking garage on a vacant block between the Lyric and the new symphony hall.
Despite these pluses, this cultural cluster leaves a lot to be desired as an urban design. The new fac,ade of the Lyric, an asymmetrical, abstract screen wall of blond brick (Richter, Corbrooks, Matthai, Hopkins, Inc., architects), adds but a soberly uncommunicative face to the scene; the built-on-the-cheap parking garage itself is a visual, if not functional, divider, and the scattershot pattern of the streets adds a final note of confusion. Clearly, some work on the streets and parks in the neighborhood would help to tie it together. Most likely, the planners already are at work on some such scheme. They are pretty good at these things in Baltimore. CAPTION: Picture, Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall in Baltimore; photo Copyright (c) 1982, Solomon Associates Inc.