Saturday, February 16, 2013

What Sound Looks Like: Stanford’s new Bing Concert Hall, by Ennead Architect

The elliptical yellow dome of Bing Concert Hall is unmistakable rising above Stanford Arboretum's canopy of trees. But the real architecture of this new performing arts center is invisible, literally nothing: the empty space of the concert hall itself. It has been carefully shaped to sing and reverberate like the inside of a cello when the first string is plucked.

But unlike a cello that is used for an hour and then tucked away safely in its case, this enormous musical instrument must also sit exposed to the rain and sun and welcome hundreds of people flowing through it. While the acoustics inside promise excellent results, this "concert hall in the woods" could have gone further to blend with the refrains of its natural setting.

The public will get its opportunity to measure the hall's success for itself with a series of inaugural concerts. Certainly the building's acoustical designer, Yasuhisa Toyota, has an excellent track record. He helped shape Los Angeles' 2004 Disney Hall (with 2300 seats compared to Bing's 842), which has been hailed for its acoustics and intimacy.

For Bing, Toyota worked closely with Ennead Architects, analyzing their initial design with his proprietary software, and refining its acoustics over nineteen revisions. The hall's interior shape was then set in steel, concrete, wood and plaster.

The hall itself is an intentionally irregular shape, which the science of acoustics tells us is the best way to coax and nurture sound waves. What you don't want is a plain box with corners for sound waves to die in, and parallel walls to bounce them around as annoying echoes.

Instead, aided by acoustician Toyota, Ennead architects (formerly Polshek Partnership, who designed Stanford's Cantor Center for the Arts) and partner Richard Olcott created a naturalistic landscape: the seats are on a series of sloping terraces that circle the stage; high above eye level, several large sails billow outwards, and overhead a cloudlike oval passes over. The seats circle the stage, allowing for a pleasurable intimacy between audience and performers. No seat is more that seventy-five feet from the stage.

These forms appear as weightless as clouds passing over a rolling Napa vineyard, but that's an illusion. They are suspended on a hidden frame of muscular steel columns and trusses that position them precisely for the maximum acoustic effect. The whole interior is isolated from environmental noise by a foot-thick concrete shell.

The interior surface of this shell is a riot of shapes and textures. The outward-tipping walls that frame the seating terraces are covered in a layers of horizontal curvilinear wood strips -- their random curves taken from seven different sine curves to create the optimal irregularity. The surfaces of the plaster clouds -- actually prefabricated fiberglass reinforced concrete panels with a nubbly surface -- may look plain, but the walls beneath them are stamped with another pattern that looks like a vision of quantum space, where Newtonian time and space have gone awry. Even the backs of the seats rise and fall in an irregular rhythm. 

The purpose of all this colliding diversity is to create micro and macro surfaces to bounce and spread sound evenly and with fidelity to all parts of the hall.

In fact what we are looking at in this collision of patterns is the complexity of the science of sound itself expressed in architectural form. The jagged patterns of a sound wave on an oscilloscope may seem random to a layperson in the same way -- but functional science underlies it.

The same creative inspiration could have improved the exterior. Set in the middle of the Stanford Arboretum, the diversity and irregularity of biological sciences -- the textures and colors of barks, the angles of branches akimbo, the range of scales from micro to macro, from leaf to trunk -- could have inspired an exterior form as vivid as the hall's interior. It could have been a concert hall both in and of the woods.

The exterior's rectilinear colonnade and elliptical dome primarily a familiar, reductive Modernism. Still, it makes some tentative moves to complement its natural surroundings. The random tilted mullions in the glass walls surrounding the lobby echo the angles of tree branches. The large truncated elliptical cone is set at a diagonal rather than facing straight out to the formal axis of Palm Drive, avoiding the central monumentality of old Stanford Museum facing it. It is a building with many entries and no single dominant facade.

But the dome's oval shape diminishes weakly in perspective, becoming a shapeless, indistinct bulge. The architects attempted to articulate the dome by slicing it into two halves, with an inset plane between the edges of the halves (the perfect place for a tile mosaic mural). Nonetheless it falls short of the vivid organic geometries of the 2009 Menlo-Atherton Performing Arts Center by Hodgetts + Fung, or the great Brazilian Modern architect Oscar Niemeyer (who died last month at 104 years.)

Likewise the flat stucco of Bing Hall's exterior deserved more study. Stucco is a fine and noble California material, used effectively for monumental buildings by architects from Bernard Maybeck (the Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco) to Charles Moore (Kresge College at UC Santa Cruz.) But it requires a sure confidence that it can be an expressive material in its own right, not just a budgetary necessity in place of more expensive stone.

Bing Hall's exterior deserved the same attention as the interior hall. This is a major building setting the tone for the campus' cultural sector (including a new art museum and an art and art history building) planned in the next few years. But the current whirlwind of construction should not make Stanford ignore the high standards set by its best buildings (by Wurster Bernardi and Emmons, Edward Durell Stone, John Carl Warnecke  and Shepley Rutan and Coolidge) that balance utility without shirking humanity.


  1. Alan, I've just discovered your Blog. Many things I treasure in my bank of memories and "things" - a passion for great design, great memories working for WB&E in high school and part of college at the time when Bill Wurster was still bellowng his displeasure at some draftsman's drawings; May Hipschman, WB&E's in-house PR guru, was my mentor in launching my PR career; I remained friends with Donn & Audrey Emmons for decades after those years, and treasure today's friendships with many of those you mention above. As for "things," Julius Schuman's and your autographs from Modernism the year you both sat & cheerfully signed & chatted with adoring architectural students; Bill Krisel's signature on a photograph taken of us at his "Star" dedication; as well as Don Wexler's. Being a part of Palm Springs mid-century modernism is just too special for words. And while I love my Palm Springs where I grew up part of the time, I still have my SF home of 45 years, built in 1903 with touches of Audrey Emmons' help restoring it to its origins. Thanks, Alan, for your insight and expertise.

    1. Thanks for that memory of Bill Wurster -- there's a lot to learn about why his office was so influential. I also remember those booksignings with Julius -- they would go on for hours, I'd be exhausted, but he was as energized as ever!

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