Pivotal Week For The New Concert Hall

Posted: June 07, 1987

The Philadelphia Orchestra's decision to build a world-class concert hall may be the most significant cultural development in this city in half a century. And its impact, good or bad, on the city's landscape and culture will be with us for decades. This is the first in a continuing series that will, in coming weeks, explore the aesthetic, economic and social ramifications of this ambitious break with the past.

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Philadelphians don't build concert halls every day. Indeed, while the city has constructed two grand opera houses - one of which, the Academy of Music, has been the home of the Philadelphia Orchestra since its founding - it has never built a hall specifically for symphonic music.

Now, after 87 seasons at Broad and Locust, the orchestra is about to build a new hall - and soon. This week, the orchestra's building committee will interview the six architects who are being considered to design it.

The decision to build, literally decades in coming, is sure to have serious impact on the orchestra itself, its image throughout the region and the world, the city's other cultural institutions, and the availability of performances by distinguished out-of-town organizations.

It will be a civic building of great importance and prestige, possibly the most significant local building for culture since the Philadelphia Museum of Art was constructed more than 60 years ago. It is almost certain to have an impact on the area around its Broad and Spruce Streets site, adding jobs and traffic and possibly buildings in a part of the city that includes many distinguished buildings and institutions, but has lacked vitality in recent decades.

If the spire of One Liberty Place represents, at least for some, a contemporary symbol of commercial Philadelphia, the concert hall will be the symbol of the city's cultural life at the end of the 20th century.

Yet building a new orchestra hall is fraught with risk. As the program the orchestra sent to the six architects being considered to design the hall puts it: "Only a few halls built in the last 30 years have been judged acoustically successful and a still smaller number are regarded as aesthetic achievements." And this hall will have a very difficult act to follow - Napoleon LeBrun's 1857 Academy of Music.

The opulently appointed academy, with its cliff of horseshoe balconies that help create a grand, yet intimate and sociable atmosphere, offers one of the most memorable concert-going experiences anywhere. It is one of only a handful of halls of its vintage surviving in the world. Quite literally, it is irreplaceable.

It is true that the orchestra is moving only a block away, will continue to own the academy and plans major renovations. Moreover, there is plenty of evidence that the city needs another major hall, so there will be many more nights at the academy after the orchestra leaves.

Still, the orchestra is replacing the academy as its home, and that won't be easy to do. The old building does not sound as good as it looks - improved acoustics are the number-one goal for the new hall - but it offers a feeling that will be hard to replace.

"The Academy of Music has set a certain criterion for us, which is intimacy," said Stephen Sell, the orchestra's executive director. "In a substantial majority of the seats you feel in close contact with the stage." But the way in which the building achieves intimacy, with large, deep balconies and a hall of very small volume, works against its acoustical suitability for symphonic music. Many of the best-sounding halls have a rectangular "shoebox" configuration - which, in a large-capacity hall, precludes intimacy.

The design of a hall is loaded with dilemmas such as these, as varying demands of art, science and economics push it, pull it and stretch it into different shapes and sizes. The process is inevitably a series of compromises, with the hoped-for result a hall whose virtues are so great that the compromises go generally unnoticed.

The decision to build a new Philadelphia hall was finally made last fall, after decades of discussion and several years of serious deliberation. In contrast to that long, long gestation period, planning is now moving ahead rapidly - some say too rapidly - in anticipation of an opening night in fall 1991.

This is a much faster pace than that maintained in the erecting of similar buildings in recent years, and it would require an almost single-minded effort on the part of the participants and extremely capable management to achieve. The old Metropolitan Opera House at Broad and Poplar took about a year from the announcement of its building in 1907 to a glittering opening night in 1908, but today the building trades are not accustomed to working with such dispatch.

The six finalist architects who will be interviewed this week were chosen

from a roster of the most celebrated architects around the world. Later this month committee members will go to visit some of the finalists' buildings. A decision is anticipated at the end of June or in July.

And this week, a list of six acoustical designers is expected to be announced. The acoustician will be the equal of the architect in power over the design, and will be announced at the same time. The orchestra hopes to have a schematic design and model by this winter, final plans next summer and construction in fall 1988.

The fund-raising campaign for the $60 million that the new hall will cost, along with $8 million for improvements at the Academy of Music and $10 million for the orchestra's endowment, is now in its first stage, with donations being solicited from board members. The fund-raising is expected to go ahead quietly until it is just about over.

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As discussions of a new hall have continued over the years, the reasons for building one have changed slightly, but have focused largely on the overcrowding of the academy and its acoustical shortcomings.

By moving out of the academy, the orchestra will allow longer seasons for the Pennsylvania Ballet and other local and visiting attractions in the building. The orchestra projects a 25 percent increase in such performances during the first year both halls are operating, although in similar situations the total has been greater.

The loosening of the schedule is not entirely an altruistic gesture for the orchestra, which expects to be able to operate more flexibly and efficiently in a new hall - accommodating auditions, soloist and section rehearsals, and other activities that now are precluded because of demand for the stage.

The orchestra's studies have shown that among the group defined as the younger of its audience's two major components, those between 45 and 54, the legendary respect that Philadelphians have had for the academy's sound is breaking down. The academy has been criticized for "dry," unreverberent sounds, and the richness for which the ensemble has been noted is not audible

from many of the best seats in the house.

Another major goal is to permit recording within the new hall. The orchestra currently records at a basketball court in one wing of Memorial Hall in Fairmount Park.

By selecting the site a block from the academy, the orchestra did not choose the alternative that would have the greatest effect on real estate development. Anything of the importance of the new hall will change its surroundings, of course, and the increased pedestrian traffic it will generate is sure to help local restaurants and small businesses, and to spur upgrading of nearby properties.

But its location is outside the focus of new development in recent years, and there are relatively few easily assembled sites nearby for new projects. The hall will give greater meaning and prestige to South Broad Street as the ''Avenue of the Arts," and the orchestra's program advocates the creation of an arts district to encourage galleries, studios and other cultural uses nearby. The hall seems more likely to strengthen what exists in the area than to leverage something large.

(The organizers of the Philadelphia International Center for the Performing Arts, which has proposed a multi-theater cultural center for a site over the Amtrak yards north of 30th Street Station, say that they are continuing to work on the project, which would include a 2,000-seat concert hall. Their financing would be based on bonds backed by parking spaces, and the center would be subsidized by the office buildings whose construction the presence of the center would help to induce.)

The architects being interviewed Tuesday and Thursday will arrive without designs but presumably with visions of how they will collaborate with the acoustician and the orchestra in the shaping of the hall. They will be interviewed by a committee made up of board members and outside architectural experts, who will be looking for a delicate balance of inspiration and cooperativeness.

They were chosen by the architectural experts from among 53 well-known architects who responded to an international mailing seeking expressions of interest and credentials. Two of the six - Mitchell/Giurgola and Venturi, Rauch & Scott Brown - are local firms. British architect James Stirling has teamed with the Philadelphia firm Geddes Brecher Qualls Cunningham. The other choices are Arata Isozaki of Tokyo, Herman Hertzberger of Amsterdam and Cesar Pelli of New Haven, Conn. Any out-of-town architect selected would probably team up with a local firm.

Most acoustical consultants have come into such situations with specific approaches and configurations they have found workable in the past. One thing they will have to address when interviewed is perhaps the most controversial issue about the hall, its capacity.

The orchestra's program calls for a 3,000-seat hall, just a few more seats than are in the Academy of Music. The best concert halls have a capacity of about 2,200 seats, and there are few good halls over 2,700, which is about the number of subscriptions the orchestra sells for each concert. Those involved in the decision-making process have said that they are willing to be persuaded to lower the capacity below the 3,000 goal. "If someone comes in here and says, 'Three thousand seats is a piece of cake,' and we probe him and it turns out he just wants the job, then he's in a lot of trouble," said Sell. "If he says that 3,000 is impossible, we need to know exactly why."

The design of the hall will emerge from the interaction of acoustician, architect and orchestra, but some key decisions already have been made. Each of the architects has been given a preliminary program for the hall that lists a great many goals, along with some specific requirements.

For example, the exterior of the hall will fit in with a pattern established for the west side of Broad Street by such classically derived buildings as the original Philadelphia Colleges of the Arts building and the Academy of Music. It will not be located in a plaza or be perceived as a sculpture, but will be part of what the orchestra hopes will be an improved Broad Street. Its Spruce Street facade probably will have a restaurant and stores.

Inside, the intention is to come up with some configuration that permits the audience to surround the orchestra, perhaps on the model of the Berlin Philharmonic, a hall that Sell terms "a design beacon" for the new one. There is serious question, however, whether the configuration of the 2,200- seat Berlin hall can be expanded to the size the orchestra wants.

Sell is quick to add that the goal is not another Berlin or another anything else. It is more intangible than that. As the program sent to the architects puts it, "the hall should have an aura, a unique sensory experience created by the manner in which the sound, the place, and the distinctive character of the orchestra are brought together through the acoustic and architectural design. All of the great halls seem to have an aura about them . . ."

That's all they want. Just an aura.

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