New H-E-B Performance Hall rises above Municipal Auditorium's preserved towers and domes.
Photos: Mike Greenberg
The Tobin Center crosses
the finish line:
Full review and reportage
on the architecture
In new downtown
stage for the arts,
design that runs deep
Sept. 14, 2014
Secrets of the veil:
How to weave a
Sept. 14, 2014
Tobin Center enters the final stretch
at the Tobin:
Sept. 14, 2014
Metal veil on Tobin Center's large theater intriguingly reveals the underlying structure. Perforation patterns on two of the veil panel variations were adapted to form the glass frit pattern on studio theater entry pavilion.
Detail of compound-curved lobby wall, made of interlocking glass-fiber-reinforced plaster panels
It comprises more
than 18,000 three-dimensional panels forming
an ensemble of different types — some double-wide with
half the face inset, some single-wide with see-through
gaps between them; some partially perforated, some not;
some with projecting fins, some without; some with
diagonal slits that allow a narrow patch of sunlight to
hit the face of an adjoining inset panel at certain
times of day. These different types of panels are
deployed in several different configurations and
rhythms, depending on the part of the building. Most
sections of the veil terminate in sloping parapets, so
that about 1,300 of the panels are trapezoidal and
unique in their measurements.
Inside the main lobby
is another design gesture I am eager to see first-hand —
a high wall of compound curvature, clad in panels that
(to judge from photographs and drawings) are unique in
geometry and thus had to be individually fabricated.
Computers have been central to the practice of architecture for a generation now. Traditional drafting tables were long ago supplanted by computer monitors, and 3-D modeling programs have made perspective drawing by hand a nearly-lost art (which some architecture schools, including the UTSA College of Architecture, are hoping to revive). Computers have been essential in translating the fantastic visions of Frank Gehry into buildable projects.
But Gehry does his
creative work in a low-tech way, and the computer
technology comes in later to make it work. For the Tobin
Center’s veil and lobby wall, computer technology was
much more implicated in the creative process itself.
Scott Crawford of the LMN Tech Studio provides a
fascinating glimpse into that process in blog posts here
the absence of ornament and other evidence of the human
hand in Modern architecture. Their point is sometimes
(though often not) well-taken. The LMN Tech Studio’s
work on the Tobin Center suggests that digital
technology is becoming analogous to the sculptor’s
chisel and the fresco painter’s brush, the architect’s
partner in the creation of unique, highly complex and
expressive (if abstract) forms.
The unblack unbox
A closer look at some of the veil panels.
The lozenge shape of the Tobin Center's studio theater (center) derives from surviving segments of the Municipal Auditorium's arcade. A portion of the large theater is visible on the right, and a sliver of the main lobby is shown at bottom right.
LMN Architects, from the March16, 2011, submission to the San Antonio Historic and Design Review Commission
The small theater in the Tobin Center breaks
The space is an
eight-sided lozenge in plan rather than a rectangle.
That shape is a legacy from the old auditorium; three
walls of the studio theater are set just inside and
parallel to three segments of the arcade. A sort of
garage door at one end can allow the space to flow into
the lobby. The walls (to judge from a rendering) are not
plain but are a variation on the three-dimensional
rhythmic patterns of the veil, and they aren’t black,
but dark teal.
(A rendering shows the walls blue, but the color was
Opera San Antonio
artistic director Tobias Picker, who will be using this
space for two productions in the company’s first full
season, very much likes the departures from the
traditional black box.
judgment till I’ve seen the space in use, preferably in
several configurations. As both an audience member and a
playwright, however, I do like the no-frills black box
for theatrical use. The absence of architectural
features allows the vision of the director and designers
to express itself without distraction, and black walls
maximize the effectiveness of stage lighting. For uses
other than plays — for concerts or lectures, for
example — a more assertive architectural presence is
welcome. It would be nice if the space could switch
identities as needed.
The urban contextThe one thing I will miss about the Majestic Theatre (apart from John Eberson’s over-the-top Mediterranean-fantasy interior) is the liveliness of its urban setting. The Tobin Center can’t match that. Two of its nearest neighbors, after all, are a phone company building and a Baptist church.
|But the Tobin Center will address the River Walk
splendidly, and it has a few nearby urban hot spots in
Radius (the home of several arts organizations and an
excellent café), the Havana Hotel and the très groovy El
Tropicano Hotel, where Rock Hudson – I am told – used to
throw some pretty wild Fiesta parties.
The Tobin is a short stroll from many apartments and clubs in the downtown core, and it’s also within reasonable walking distance of the rapidly emerging urban neighborhood a little to the north — the sprawling 1221 Broadway complex, the river House Apartments soon to open just to the west of 1221, and the hundreds more units in and near the Pearl Brewery development.
It took me about 20 minutes to walk from 1221 Broadway to the Tobin on Avenue B, and about the same time to return along the very pleasant River Walk. (Stopping for solid or liquid refreshments at The Luxury would, of course, lengthen the trip's duration.) Walking to The Pearl and its environs would have taken about 30 minutes — not an implausibly long walk for residents of dense urban cities such as New York and Chicago. It would be a snap by bike. Yes, the Tobin Center will have bike racks. According to Marmon Mok architect Morgan Williams, who is overseeing construction, “We’re pursuing LEED Silver certification which requires a certain number of racks based on building occupancy.”
My guess is that the next five years will bring several thousand more residents within walking distance of the Tobin Center, or along the proposed streetcar route, which would have a stop no more than a couple of blocks away. And a good deal of street retail will follow. If the neighborhood of the Tobin Center seems a little sparse right now, before long it will be hopping.
From the River Walk, steps lead up to an outdoor venue with giant video screen.
Dell Hall, in Austin's Long Center for the Performing Arts, is a multipurpose space seating 2,442.
The sound of musicThe biggest unknown at this point is how the San Antonio Symphony will sound in the H-E-B Performance Hall. The overwhelming likelihood is that the new space will be a great improvement over the Majestic Theatre, whose natural acoustic is dry, a little harsh and somewhat veiled. But how much better, and the specific qualities of the sound, are hard to predict.
All of the music spaces that are widely recognized as having the best acoustics for orchestras are single-purpose concert halls, where the concert platform and the audience seating are integrated into a single acoustical space. The H-E-B Performance Hall, however, is a multipurpose theater; the orchestra will play on a proscenium stage, requiring some ingenuity to couple effectively with the seating area.
In an email, Akustiks principal Paul Scarbrough explained his strategy for solving that problem: “At the Tobin, the design of the [orchestra] shell has been integrated with the design of the forestage area (the zone just downstage of the proscenium) so that both work together to bring the sound [of] the orchestra out into the room. When the shell is removed for opera, the forestage zone adjusts slightly to help the vocal line soar above the orchestra in the pit.”
Will it work as hoped? We’ll just have to wait for the answer.
The conflicting needs of the symphony for more resonance and the opera for less resonance can be mitigated with adjustable curtains on the side walls, but other characteristics of the sound, such as the pattern of reflections and the ratio of early to late reflections from the walls, balcony fasciae and ceiling, may be hard to vary routinely. (A reflection pattern that is good for keeping an opera singer's consonants crisp might not provide the richly blended sound that many prefer for symphony orchestras. The mix of early and late reflections affects the listeners' sense of envelopment.)
Of the post-1980 multipurpose theaters I’ve experienced (in St. Paul, Louisville, Austin and Fort Worth), all have sounded better for opera than for symphony orchestras, with the possible exception of Fort Worth’s Bass Performance Hall. But more than a few single-purpose concert halls, built for important orchestras, have been acoustical flops requiring costly renovations. There are no guarantees, one way or the other.
Some, at least, of the portents for the H-E-B hall are favorable. The room is nearly the same width as the Amsterdam Concertgebouw, generally regarded as one of the best concert halls in the world, and the length and height dimensions also look promising. Bruce Bugg, chairman of the Bexar County Performing Arts Center Foundation, told me that the hall’s relatively small 1,750-seat capacity was chosen because the consultants from Akustiks said that would be the optimum size for the best sound. (All of the multipurpose halls I have visited are larger, some much larger, than 1,750 seats. The most notorious failures among single-purpose concert halls also are much larger.)
But “the best sound”
means different things to different
people, or even to the same person. I have been very favorably
impressed by both the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los
Angeles and the McDermott Concert Hall in the Morton H.
Meyerson Symphony Center in Dallas, but their acoustics
are stylistic opposites. Both have an enveloping resonance,
but the Meyerson sound is lushly blended, nicely suited
to the big Romantic repertoire, while the Disney sound
is nimbler and with pinpoint imaging, better suited to
Modern repertoire (if the orchestra is superbly
disciplined). Both halls have admirers and detractors.
In his email to me, Mr. Scarbrough wrote that the H-E-B
Hall was designed to be “more like Meyerson than like
A hall can sound fine to the audience but be so problematic for the musicians that performance standards suffer. Meyerhoff Symphony Hall in Baltimore sounded quite good from my seat at the opening in 1982 – much better than Toronto’s acoustically bizarre Roy Thomson Hall, whose opening I had attended a few days earlier. Both had the same acoustician, and both caused big problems for the musicians and for orchestral ensemble. The problems couldn’t be fixed without major renovations, which were undertaken many years later.A further wrinkle is the province of psychoacoustics, the study of the subjective response to sound once it starts sloshing around inside our brains – and brains are very strange animals. Our response to sound can be affected by our memories, our state of health, our brain chemistry, our other senses – by the colors and architectural features we see on and around the stage, for example. Maybe our perception of music is even affected by the scent wafting from the person in the adjacent seat.
Acousticians can promise us anything, but can they give us Arpège?
|Dallas Symphony's McDermott
Concert Hall in the Meyerson Symphony Center (left) and
Los Angeles Philharmonic's Walt Disney Concert Hall
(below) differ markedly in acoustical characteristics,
but both are widely admired.