The gleaming new Richard B. Fisher Center for the Performing Arts in Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y., offers unusually flexible theater space for both professionals and students in a signature Frank O. Gehry building on Bard College’s 550-acre campus, ninety miles north of Manhattan. The Center is designed to accommodate everything from chamber and orchestral music to opera and dance to plays and lectures.
The original plan was for a single theater located next to existing arts buildings, but the project was expanded to include two theaters — the Sosnoff Theater, seating up to 900 people, and a “black-box” theater for teaching and student performances — on a more spacious lot. The new siting serves to enhance the presence of Gehry’s sculptural creation, which, from the outset, was driven by the architect’s desire for superior acoustics.
“For this project, all the forms of and in the theater spaces were discussed in terms of their acoustics,” Gehry declares. “In the case of an auditorium that is meant for live performances, sound quality is, of course, extremely important. The shape of the hall, its ceiling and volume, grew out of a specific acoustical program — for example, the molded balcony edges, the wood that is combined with concrete in the walls.”
The hexagonal-shape Sosnoff Theater “could have been a box,” Gehry adds, but instead its walls bow slightly inward to create convex surfaces deliberately intended to better diffuse sound. Inspired by the shape of a lyre, he says he “started to use (its curves) on the outside in a more flamboyant or generous way. My designs grew out of our acoustical requirements.”
Unlike the architect’s now-famous Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, which was begun after the Fisher Center, the Bard College venues incorporate “variable acoustics” features that allow them to be physically altered for different types of performances. These include a massive concert shell insert in Sosnoff Theater, consisting of three ceiling panels and 13 stage towers, and movable, plug-in speaker arrays in the smaller theater for vastly different stage
Gehry points out that “multi-purpose rooms are difficult to make.” That is because “the requirements for audio are counter to the requirements for symphonic music in many ways,” explains Philip Giddings, president of Engineering Harmonics, audio/video consultants for both the Bard and Disney projects. In addition, the acoustician on both Gehry projects, Yasuhisa Toyota of Nagata Acoustics, tends to eschew variable acoustics — there were none in the original concept for the Disney Concert Hall — that could serve to mediate reinforced sound.
“The reality is these halls usually involve amplified shows of various types,” says Giddings, which makes for “a bit of disconnect. The halls are designed so that the stage is the ideal place for sound to emanate from. Rarely are our speaker systems on stage. Some portion of it might be on stage, but typically much of it is elevated. So we can’t and don’t take advantage of all the natural reflections.
“We attempt to work as closely as possible with the acoustician, but our worlds are really quite different,” Giddings muses. “There is a level of coordination that has to take place.” Engineering Harmonics also worked closely with Theatre Projects Consultants, on both projects, and with the audio/video contractor SPL Integrated Solutions. “The upper portion of the proscenium is an exceptionally complicated area, construction- and rigging-wise,” notes Giddings. “Speakers drop down through Bombay doors which conceal them in the up position.”
Sosnoff has a full fly system with a grid at 76 feet and traps below the stage. The 80-ft.-wide proscenium is adjustable from a 40-foot stage depth to 52 feet using a forestage lift and platforms. The concert platform accommodates a large-scale orchestra and risers for a choir of up to a hundred members. With the forestage lift in the lowered position, a large open orchestra pit is created for up to eighty musicians. For dance, a special, more resilient floor can be placed over the stage floor.
“AV systems include various sources,” reports SPL’s Jerry Gale, “such as digicart, CD and digital sound effects and routing, microphones, playback/record capability, digital processing, production intercom, console operation, amplification for support and effects loudspeakers, self-powered main loudspeakers, sound measurement, hearing assistance, output/speakers, and performance video.”
“Regarding video,” he continues, “a digital projector was installed in the projection room located in the second balcony of the Sosnoff Theater. The projector is used to display video on a retractable screen installed in the front of the hall and onto a 27 by 3-foot retractable sur-title screen (for opera translation). Three cameras are installed in the theaters: one below the balcony and one focused on the conductor from the orchestra pit, in the main theater, and one at the back of the hall in the black-box theater.”
Ten 27-inch monitors are mounted in the lobby to provide what Jeffrey Bamford of Engineering Harmonics calls “late-comer video,” which is a live broadcast of the performance for the benefit of attendees arriving late. Monitors are also located backstage, including in rehearsal studios. “One idea is that they may want to put a choral group in one of the rehearsal spaces and have them participate in a live performance,” he points out. “They need to see the conductor onstage.”
Tie lines connect microphones in the rehearsal spaces to the sound control room, which can direct the sound to anywhere in the building. “Each theater has its own MediaMatrix,” Bamford says, which provides “DSP (digital signal processing) of the signals and handles routing from various inputs to outputs. It is used to provide EQ (equalization) to get the room sounding as flat as possible.”
In testing the main theater, for example, audio engineers found that the concert shell had a G signature. “It was, we theorized, caused by the concert shell. It has a resonance in G, so we had to sort of nick that out a little bit.” Bamford adds that “to build the shell takes about a day. It weighs several hundred tons, but it really does work quite well. It sounds amazing and changes the whole aspect of the stage performance.”
“Rarely do we experience a big production like an opera in a relatively small auditorium,” notes acoustician Toyota. “This is one of the challenges that this kind of space presents. The space has a big air volume (318,000 sq. ft.), almost equivalent to that of a bigger-sized symphonic hall. Since a big orchestra can sometimes have too much sound energy for a hall of this size, we had to control that energy. Thus, we designed the orchestra shell so that its placement is completely flexible, which allows us to achieve the right level of sound control.”
Gehry’s stated aim that the building’s design be driven by acoustics extends to its enormous stainless steel roof. Normally, says John Tissot, project manager for Theatre Projects Consultants, “Gehry’s stainless steel roofs are never above performance spaces, only public spaces.” Instead, the Fisher Center has exposed supports that elevate and insulate the roof from the subroof and interior spaces.
“The big canopy in front started out as a canopy to protect people at the door like a porch,” Gehry notes. “It then becomes a shield.” On a sunny day, it reflects the sky. “On a rainy day, it disappears into the sky. It just disappears.”
Describing the structure, architecture critic Robert Campbell says “what strikes you right away is how casual, how thrown-together it looks. It’s basically a building of three or four cubes made of glass, concrete, and stucco, with a shiny blanket of stainless steel thrown over as if to protect them from the rain.”
“At Bilbao,” Campbell writes, “the blanket is the actual roof of the building, and the interior spaces are shaped by it. But at Bard, the blanket is merely a parasol that floats above the roof, a sort of half-erected tent over the rest of the building. The blanket is largely decorative, not functional, and looks it.”
Metaphorically, he says, “the Fisher is theatrical, a building with a frontstage and a backstage: a facade for the arriving audience, and a practical rear for the workers.” Finally, he concludes, it imparts a “sense of improvisation” and “advertises the presence of art and daring. Artists will feel free to experiment.”
– John Andrews
sources for this article include the boston globe, the new york times, and the associated press, and architectural record and stage directions magazines.
spl integrated solutions
theatre projects consultants