Orchestra Hall: The Challenges Are Monumental

Posted: November 30, 1986

It seemed as if it would never happen, but it has. The Philadelphia Orchestra board of directors has voted to move the ensemble from the Academy of Music at Broad and Locust to a new concert hall, yet undesigned, at the southwest corner of Broad and Spruce Streets.

Opening night is planned for September 1991, which means it is probably a bit early to start shopping for a new dress.

Even though the idea has been discussed for years, this actual commitment by the Philadelphia Orchestra Association board will have implications that have scarcely been considered. The obvious challenges are to find money and to create a new hall whose acoustical qualities make up for the loss of the academy's visual richness.

Other big, though less discussed, questions concern the future of the city's other performing institutions and of South Broad Street itself. For years, people have talked about how the street is a de facto cultural center, but in reality there is little space in which to gather, little sense of occasion, little of the energy that, despite all their other faults, Lincoln Center in New York and even the Kennedy Center in Washington have in abundance.

The orchestra; the Philadelphia Colleges of the Arts, which owns and is renovating the Shubert Theater, and the city have to work together to pull this block and the entire area together, which will not be easy when most of the activity is on the same side of the street and the only new building will be at the far end of the site.

The city owns what could be a pivotal site, the parking lot at the northeast corner of Broad and Spruce, diagonally opposite the site of the new hall, which is also occupied by a parking lot. It could profit from the appreciation of real estate values in the area, but it might best consider how to make sure that something lively and public happens there.

Another idea to be explored is the possibility of turning the concourse under Broad Street between Locust and Spruce into some sort of superlobby, a pleasant gathering space with food, drink, casual entertainment, shops, galleries and anything else that could be fitted in there. That's not something the orchestra would be expected to do, but the city, which owns the space, might find a way to make it attractive for a developer.

The anchor for the north end of this potential cultural center is, of course, the historic, beautiful academy, which the orchestra will continue to own and operate. The academy became the focus of the city's musical life as soon as it was built in 1856 far to the west of almost everything else. It has been home for the orchestra since its founding in 1900.

The academy's future will be a return to its original purpose, as an opera house and home to dance and musical theater. This may not be as ideal a situation as it seems, however, because the academy has so many seats that offer only a partial view of the stage.

That's not so bad for the orchestra, but it presents problems for staged works. The academy's 19th-century ambiance is wonderful, but today's audiences expect to be able to see. Current leaders of the Pennsylvania Ballet and the Opera Company of Philadelphia have expressed delight with the academy, but it could cripple their troupes in the long run.

Nevertheless, the orchestra's move would provide a big improvement over the status quo, in which the orchestra dominates the academy season and everything else must work around it. Indeed, its departure from the academy presents a challenge to other performing institutions: They lose their best excuse. They must find audiences and funding to support longer seasons and better work.

The orchestra's move puts a large crimp in the plans for a performing arts center on the west bank of the Schuylkill north of 30th Street Station. Its organizers say that the plan will work without an orchestra hall or an opera house, and they intend to go ahead. But although removal of the orchestra to that site truly would have seemed a sacrilege, the project appeared to be an attractive and cost-effective way to accommodate opera and dance. The orchestra then would have been free to modify the academy into a pure concert hall and to maintain both a great building and a great tradition.

With tax-law changes and a diminution of the recent regional outbreak of economic euphoria, it is probably not the best moment for the orchestra to go out to the community seeking $78 million. (The new hall will be called Orchestra Hall, unless someone provides a substantial inducement to call it something else.)

Philadelphians are not in the habit of contributing money for cultural purposes: The Philadelphia Museum of Art is one of only a handful in the country that has not expanded in recent years; the academy, at 130 years of age, is still the city's chief performing venue.

Nevertheless, there seemed to a consensus within the business and cultural communities that if anything were to happen for the expansion of performance space, this was it. The orchestra's dominant role in the city's cultural life seems the natural order of things, and incremental change, rather than radical realignment, is most characteristic of the Philadelphia style of doing things.

But a new home for the Philadelphia Orchestra is a lot more than just another rowhouse or office building. It has to be a very special addition to the city.

The orchestra has announced that it will launch an international selection process to pick an architect. A committee that includes a number of members of the orchestra board and some outside experts (including Robert Maxwell, the dean of architecture at Princeton, and John Morris Dixon, editor of Progressive Architecture magazine) will direct the selection, with Lee Copeland, dean of the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Fine Arts, as professional adviser. Copeland performed a similar role last year for the Seattle Art Museum, which selected the Philadelphia architecture firm of Venturi, Rauch and Scott Brown to design a new building.

Stephen Sell, orchestra executive director, said last week that this selection process would take place in two stages and would be a review of the architects' previous work, not a design competition.

More members of this selection committee remain to be appointed, and the final balance of board members and outsiders is not yet clear. It is a delicate matter. The outsiders cannot make the board accept an architect with whom it does not feel comfortable, but they can help educate the board and remind the members that the building of a new hall for the Philadelphia Orchestra is an event of great importance to a wider community, primarily in the region but also internationally.

There is a danger that such a process might turn out to be merely a reflection of international fashion. But that is probably less than the risk of selecting the architect in a traditionally secretive and clubby fashion, which could result in a genial but mediocre choice. The orchestra has an obligation to bring the same professionalism to its architecture as it does to making music.

The orchestra will select the acoustical consultant on its own. This decision will have a major impact on the very nature of the hall. Acoustics is an engineering specialty, but it can help determine such matters as whether concertgoers will be able to sit in such a way that they can see what everyone else is wearing. The academy's horseshoe design is a very sociable configuration, but some acoustical experts contend that it presents difficulties for an orchestral hall.

Selection of a design team is expected by next summer, which will allow the team a year to develop and refine a design before construction starts in the fall of 1988.

It seems almost unbelievable that the orchestra has actually made the decision. And, indeed, the announcement itself on Monday was so listless, with the board's officers so lacking in dynamism and enthusiasm, that someone who wasn't paying close attention might have thought that they had actually made the decision to give up the whole thing.

They had better work up some enthusiasm before too much time goes by. And they must make sure they come up with a design that is worth getting excited about.

*

Word comes from Louise F. Rossmassler, archivist of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, that I was too generous in my discussion of the contribution of Fiske Kimball to the design of the museum building. She notes that construction was already well under way when Kimball took office as director in September 1925.

She says that Kimball had a lot to do with the interior, including some of the major architectural installations, but that when I was talking about the

exterior of the great multicolored Grecian-style palace, I should have paid tribute to Eli Kirk Price, the prime mover in getting the building constructed.

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