Miami music machine adds cool and recalibrates typology
It’s a Gehry but not as we know it. The recently opened New World Symphony Academy in Miami Beach is full of surprises and on inspection, possibly reveals as much about the architect as it does of itself.
The academy attracts aspiring musicians from all over the States and its extremely high standard translated into an exacting brief for the architect. Currently home to some 86 fellows in their mid 20s- early 30s, each three year fellowship has been hard won with 1200 applicants for every thirty positions, equating to a 2% acceptance rate.
My guide, Michael Frisco from the Academy, summed this up: “You have to understand the Academy to understand the building.” The driver behind this project - realised from a vision spun out over two decades - is Michael Tilson Thomas, Founder and Artistic Director of the New World Symphony, America's orchestral home. Unsurprisingly for someone with this level of passion for classical music, he is also an accomplished conductor, composer, educator and pianist. Tilson Thomas’ vision was not simply to create a new venue for the outmoded Lincoln Theatre across the road, but to push the boundaries, to create a laboratory for the presentation of classical music.
The catalyst for realising the project was probably when Frank Gehry entered the picture some nine years ago. The family connection goes way back to when Gehry used to babysit for Tilson Thomas, so the thought process had an unusually long run-in period. The two eventually presented a plan to the city for a new building on a parking lot of some 500 spaces, one of the last undeveloped parts in Miami Beach. The rest is history.
Gehry’s interpretation of this brief, an outwardly innocuous building I believe, marks a benchmark both in the career of its creator and in the Performing Space building typology. At first glance it’s startling mainly because it isn’t. It doesn’t shout at you like a Bilbao or Disney as you’d expect. In fact, you could easily miss it as your yellow cab cruised through the Miami grid.
And unlike its unruly forbears, this offspring from the Gehry production line drops neatly into the urban grid. But don’t be deceived, this isn’t just a Gehry-on-the-cheap. The boxy envelope is bursting with technology and joined-up ideas borne out two decades of preparation. It’s techno credentials are impressive; plugged into a state of the art, Internet 2, high speed connection the building houses 17 miles of fibre optic cable, enabling global participation with outside orchestras, for instance the Vienna Philharmonic, Cello Section was recently linked by HD video to play in real time with the academy’s Cello students.
Once inside the building, a sense of relief pervades as here is Gehry-land: flowing organic curves and intriguing spaces somehow nestle naturally within the square walls. So the exterior was just a ruse. Gehry was here all along. Now finally we are well outside of Kansas, the imposing internal structure (which had all been mocked-up in a nearby warehouse) reassuringly induces echos of Bilbao but yet had been manufactured from low-cost boards.
Most contemporary performing spaces have to address the thorny borderland where backstage meets front of house, blurring the boundaries, increasing engagement, but the brief for this building went further; another boundary had to be acknowledged, that between musicians and the administration. This was simply accomplished with a string of shared spaces, cafes, lobbies but also small details like adding glass panels to practicing rooms bring life and excitement to otherwise utilitarian hallways and corridors.
But the big issue for this typology, the elephant in the auditorium so to speak, and it’s a very real issue facing most classical performance venues, is that of aging audiences. Across the globe, audiences are literally dying out. So public inclusion, breaking down the barriers, taking the elitism out opera, adding cool is the big agenda. And this is where this building takes off, it’s a missile aimed straight at the heart of problem.
Operas, ballets and classical music have historically been exclusive. For the upper classes. But growing commercial pressures and the imperative to attract younger audiences have changed all that. In the last decade or so, the new mission has been to integrate the venue with the surrounding community, allow permeation of the boundaries, intrigue passers-by and ultimately, tempt them in. Gehry has achieved this with a combination of creative use of sightlines (glimpses of performances) and lashings of technology. The exterior glass has the lowest iron content available, giving the highest transparency, showcasing the inside of the building and the atrium. The stakes are high: some five million people walk by every year. Michael Frisco confirms: “It works, people get curious, people from all walks of life, all age groups come in and we also host upwards of 30 free events a year,” adding, “I’ve been involved with orchestras most of my life, but what’s happening in this building is really unique.”
The other commercial attributes necessary nowadays are flexibility and maximisation of usage. The venue hosts a sub-programme of third party events and with the aid of technology the acoustics can be tailored to suit a wide range of acts.
All of this is solid, sound design, on brief, but the pièce de résistance is the projection wall. This one element transforms the building and literally radiates culture out into the surrounding neighbourhood. This hasn’t just pushed the boundaries so much as re-calibrated the typology. The vast 7,000 sq ft screen facing Collins Avenue relays in real time the performances inside the auditorium. This is where technology kicks in, the quality of image and audio is unsurpassed; 10 robotic HD cameras are fully directed for each presentation, ‘so when there is a flute solo, you see a close up of the flute, for example’.
Four 35,000 lumens projectors are utilised to deliver the HD image, each one projects a quadrant of the wall, specialist software then renders it as one high definition image. 167 speakers provide what has been acclaimed in reviews as ‘one the best outdoors amplified experiences’. The centre holds (free) wallcast concerts every 2 -3 weeks during season and represents: “A prime example of how we’re trying to turn the building inside out. The auditorium seats up to 1000 people but we can get 1500+ people outside. They start assembling hours before the start, bringing blankets and wine, finding the best spots.”
What’s great about this building, which some observers are citing as Frank Gehry’s most programme driven building, is not just the fresh thinking, the uninhibited embracing of technology, but that it is also pure Miami Beach. The big screen not only connects with the community, it connects back through time to the city’s roots, to another Miami era; to 1938 when the city opened its first drive-in movie theatre and Art Deco was the next best thing in architecture.
It’s a classic.
Editor in Chief at WAN
Michael Hammond is also author of Performing Architecture published by Merrell