Photo © David Sundberg/ESTO

New World Center

Gehry Partners

Miami Beach, Florida

By Victoria Newhouse

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Frank Gehry’s New World Center (NWC) in Miami’s South Beach, and Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles [RECORD, November 2003, page 134], are at once similar yet quite different. While the sculptural stainless steel Disney Hall remains a landmark of the 21st century, nearly every guiding principle of that hall is overturned in the more reserved, white-stuccoed concrete New World Center in Miami. Yet both the Los Angeles and the Miami Beach performing arts spaces feature single halls with no proscenium.

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Howard Herring, president of the New World Symphony, takes us on a tour of the building. View more architecture videos

In contrast to the painful birth of Disney Hall, the Miami project offered Gehry the opportunity to work with a lifelong friend, the esteemed conductor and composer Michael Tilson Thomas. A big difference between the two designs was Gehry’s creation in Los Angeles of “a nice room in which nothing changes,” as he says, and, conversely, his willingness for the Miami Beach auditorium to accommodate a dazzling array of transformations.

Thomas founded the New World Symphony (NWS) in 1987 as an orchestral academy for gifted graduates of major music conservatories. Attentive to the wishes of the late Ted Arison, the founder of Carnival Cruise Lines, who spearheaded NWS’s $75 million endowment, Thomas chose Miami for the symphony’s home, originally in a retrofitted 1930s movie palace. Two nearby parking lots offered a site for the three-part project: a new NWC building, a 557-car garage, and the 2.5-acre Miami Beach Soundscape Park from which the public can view free simulcasts of concerts projected on part of the center’s facade. All three components were to be developed by NWC — with Gehry as the architect — for the city, which leased the land to NWC for $1 a year for 90 years. The Dutch landscape architects West 8 took over the park’s design after a budget reduction prompted Gehry to resign.

The NWC and its predominantly white walls harmonize with the heart of South Beach’s Art Deco redevelopment district located a few blocks away on Lincoln Road. A wavy canopy marks the entrance, while the walls framing the atrium’s glazed facades inflect slightly, drawing attention to the interior where the activities within some workrooms are visible from the outside. After dark, the opaque auditorium facade next to the transparent atrium lights up with video projections.

Floating within the six-story atrium are volumes in the architect’s signature sculptural style that house classrooms, rehearsal spaces, and offices. Traversed by a spiraling stair, the space is bathed in natural illumination from a skylight and east and west glazed facades. “The volumes are built,” says Gehry, “like a multistory village, like a city on a stage.”

The top floor of the NWC contains a music library and the patrons’ lounge, plus a rooftop garden designed by landscape architect Raymond Jungles.

Views into and around the concave, convex, and tilted forms perceptually expand the lobby’s space and allow glimpses of musical activities in these rooms. Two low, narrow corridors snake from the east and the west parts of the lobby into the center of the 7,000-square-foot auditorium, where tiers of seats rise steeply on all sides in an arena configuration.

The arrangement of the 756 seats varies according to the performance. Thomas’s commitment to experimental ways of presenting music encouraged Gehry to devise 14 different stage configurations within the hall’s trapezoidal container. Additionally, 247 seats can retract to make a flat floor and four satellite platforms allow musical programs in areas other than the stage.

Concerts feature theatrical, immersive lighting; specially commissioned videos; and contextual information (instead of program notes) projected onto the five huge, curved, acoustic, saillike wall panels, suspended below the ceiling. Simultaneous projections on these “sails” surround the audience and can, with the appropriate videos, create images that reinforce the musical experience. No seat in the auditorium is more than 13 rows from the stage. The sails swooping down the walls’ upper halves lower the ceiling visually and intensify the space’s feeling of intimacy, a quality that has become as important as acoustical excellence to the performance arts.

Ample daylight is admitted through a window behind the stage and a skylight, both constructed of multilayered laminated glass to mitigate outside noise. The concert hall is also protected from intrusive sound by massive concrete walls isolated from the interior ones. The soft absorptiveness of the stage’s Alaskan yellow cedar and the plaster system for the ceiling baffles offer other acoustic features. The room’s 50-foot height (the same as Disney Hall’s) and its boxlike shape also produce acoustics that are clear and enveloping no matter what size group is performing. As NWS flute fellow Matthew Roitstein remarks, “In contrast to our old hall, the musicians can hear themselves and each other.” The ensemble’s adjustment to the more balanced acoustics of their new home should counter criticism by some of the symphony’s excessive loudness.

Connections to the university-based, broadband Internet2 network allow NWS students to take part in online projects and receive instruction from musicians elsewhere — in addition to the now-standard means of streaming a concert in Miami around the globe. The hall’s acoustician, Yasuhisa Toyota, says, “The equipment is not new, but increasing the technological possibilities to this extent is.” Another technological feature aimed at a larger public was in evidence during the center’s opening week. Over a thousand people filled West 8’s park to attentively watch “Wallcasts” of each concert being played inside. These simulcasts zoomed in on musicians as well as showed the 80-some orchestra members, relaying sound via 167 speakers embedded in large metal tubes.

The NWC achieves many of the goals that are being sought for today’s concert halls, and which are more prevalent abroad than in the United States. A welcoming openness to the exterior is provided by the atrium and reinforced by the Wallcasts, and the auditorium combines intimacy with remarkable physical and acoustical flexibility. The magic sparked by the collaboration of Gehry and Thomas just might fulfill their hope to turn around a perceived faltering interest in classical music by the young.

Victoria Newhouse is the author of the forthcoming Site and Sound: The Architecture and Acoustics of New Spaces for Music (Monacelli).

May 2011
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