Halls (con't)

R. Lawrence Kirkegaard, Scott’s boss and founder of the firm, will explain that there’s no magic formula for responsive acoustics.* On a tour of European concert halls with the San Francisco Symphony in 1987, in preparation for a complete rehab of the orchestra’s home, Davies Symphony Hall, he and a team of five acoustical consultants traveled with balloons, tape decks, and multiple microphones, as well as then-state of the art computer-based systems for sound measurement They burst the balloons and, from eight mikes scattered around the room, recorded the decay of the sound in the Musikverein (Vienna) and the Philharmonie (Berlin), among others.

The basic fact of good acoustics is how long the sound lasts. But its decay is affected by many things: the shape of the hall, the material of its construction, rugs and seat cushions, the presence or absence of human bodies.

Among these variables, perspective is rarely accorded equal time. But the musicians in an orchestra, concentrated in one area of the hall, hear sound quite differently from the audience that occupies the rest of the hall. Yet the hall must respond to both, often at conflicting rates. That’s where the acoustician comes in. He “tunes” the hall by allowing for both immediacy and prolongation of sound. The players need immediacy; the audience listens for completion, or “blend,” a by-product of the prolongation of sound.

Though there are exceptions, the concert halls of the latter half of the 20th century were too large, too flimsy, and too idiosyncratic. Most 19th-century music halls contained 1,700 to 2,000 seats; many of the late 20th century hold 3,000 or more seats. To assure sightlines to these audiences, some halls are fan-shaped. Others put the orchestra on an open platform surrounded by tiers of seats. Some are rectangular, after the “shoebox halls” of the 19th century, but they are larger, and their builders “simply increased the proportions and mistakenly assumed that they would still work on a larger scale,” Scott says. It seems appropriate to point out here that sound decays exponentially the farther it travels from its source.

And then there’s technology. Without steel girders, 19th-century buildings used heavy brick or stone walls lined with thick plaster to hold up their roofs. In the 20th century, steel took over the weight-bearing responsibility, and the halls were lined with gypsum wallboard, which hasn’t the depth or resonance of plaster.

On top of all that, many halls were created by young cities that had other goals for their cultural life in addition to classical music. They invested in so-called multipurpose halls, which try so hard to serve all purposes that they end up serving none very well.

“Early multi-use halls never really worked well,” understates Scott. “The buildings didn’t live up to expectations and eventually, for each one, it became time to fix it.

“What we try to do now is think the other way,” he continues. “Instead of building a theater that also can be used as a music hall, we aim for a music hall that also can be used as a theater.”

Scott’s no musical snob. He wants the best that any hall can be, whether it’s a classical venue in which Bach will be revered or an outdoor shell for summer concerts of fusion jazz, hip-hop, and heavy metal. He’s been the lead consultant for musical spaces that range from renovations of the New York State Theater and the Juilliard Theater in Lincoln Center, Jones Hall in Houston, the University of Michigan’s Hill Auditorium, and the Hult Center for the Performing Arts in Eugene, Oregon.

And he’s led new construction projects for clients as varied as Pressure Point Recording Studio, Shure Inc. (a manufacturer of microphones and audio electronics components), the Spertus Institute of Jewish Studies’ new home in Chicago, and Blachford Inc. (a noise-control product manufacturer). He has assisted other members of the firm on projects such as Strathmore Concert Hall outside Washington, D.C., Orchestra Hall in Chicago, and the Tennessee Theatre in Knoxville, a gloriously gaudy former movie palace and performance hall.

He’s designed and coordinated the installation of amplification, audiovisual, and white-noise systems, and he’s turned the central space under the 80-foot-high rotunda of the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago, where once could be heard nothing but acoustical chaos, into a crossroads of galleries in which small groups can congregate and converse. One of the things that keep the job interesting is that every single project is different, and each demands a unique solution.


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