Tobin Center enters the final stretch

 
May 15, 2014
While we're waiting for the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts to open, at long last, this September, I'd like to offer a few preliminary musings about the project. (A full review of the architecture and acoustics will follow the center's opening.)

To remind you of some basic facts: The Tobin Center comprises the 1,750-seat H-E-B Performance Hall, which will be the new home of the San Antonio Symphony, Opera San Antonio and Ballet San Antonio; the Carlos Alvarez Studio Theater, a flexibly configurable space that can seat as many as 235 for a range of musical and theatrical groups, including Attic Rep and Chamber Orchestra San Antonio; and an outdoor event space, the Riverwalk Plaza, that can seat 600. The new building incorporates the Spanish Colonial Revival front entrance and side towers and a portion of the exterior arcade of the cavernous 1926 Municipal Auditorium, the rest of which was razed.

LMN Architects of Seattle led the design team, with Marmon-Mok of San Antonio the associate architects. The acoustical consultant was Akustiks, based in South Norwalk, Conn. The theater consultant was Fisher Dachs Associates of New York.

The digital chisel

The Tobin Center's signature architectural feature is the grillwork of metal panels that forms the outer garment of the large theater and rises above the building mass in some areas. This "veil," as the architects refer to it, does not hide the underlying structure, or even the mechanical equipment on the roofs, but intriguingly reveals them. (Appropriately, the centerpiece of Opera San Antonio's inaugural season in the Tobin Center will be Richard Strauss's "Salome.")

The veil is much more complex and rigorously designed than it might at first appear.

It comprises more than veil detail18,000 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.
Both the veil and the lobby wall are visually striking (the veil will likely look more entrancing with its night lighting), and they also exemplify the increasingly creative role that computer technology is playing in architectural design.

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 and here.

Nostalgists lament 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

Since the 1960s, the black box — an unadorned rectangular space painted black, usually provided with movable seats and having no fixed stage — has become nearly ubiquitous for small-scale (and small-budget) theatrical productions.

The small theater in the Tobin Center breaks the mold.

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 changed.)

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.

I'll withhold 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 context

The 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 nearbyriver walk view 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.

The sound of music

The 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 Disney Hallthings 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 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 Disney."

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?

incident light
By Mike Greenberg