News
03.14.2011
Crit> New World Symphony by Frank Gehry
Miami Beach's climate forces Gehry's bold gestures inside at new concert hall.
The New World Symphony's main facade is part projection and part glass curtain wall.
Claudia Uribe

 

Nearly five decades after founding his Los Angeles-based practice, Frank Gehry is such the quintessential starchitect that it is easy to forget that he was once a Southern California practitioner just working out problems—something that gets lost in his later, more expressive signature works. Venice and Santa Monica are peppered with his hits and misses. Without CATIA’s sophisticated computer effects, the early works can be a mash-up of material choices and forms, but in hindsight, there’s a delight in the awkwardness. So, it’s a surprise to find that the New World Symphony in Miami Beach, which opened on January 25, is pleasantly retrospective.

The 100,641-square-foot building is a part of a three-block development project in downtown Miami Beach, just steps from Lincoln Road. (Herzog and de Meuron’s high-class parking lot, 1111 Lincoln Road, is several blocks away.) It’s sandwiched between a 557-space parking structure that Gehry has designed at the back and a public park by Dutch landscape architecture firm West 8 at its front, with both sides feeding a music-going public into the building.

As an institution, the New World Symphony offers professional training in orchestral music and performance to young music school graduates, so in addition to a 756-seat concert hall and public lobby, the building’s hefty program required classrooms, rehearsal spaces, and offices. Yielding to Florida’s strict hurricane restrictions, Gehry squeezed it all within four, mostly flat facades.

 

New World Symphony

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Clockwise from top: The highly flexible auditorium has movable tiered seating; two interior views revealing Gehry's signature expression; A view upward to a skylight; The glazed facade is reinforced for hurricane weather.
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Michael Tilson Thomas is the New World Symphony’s founder and artistic director. He and Gehry are old friends, but the collaboration between these two icons at the peak of their respective careers seems uneasy. At a press conference held the summer before the opening, the charismatic Thomas, attempting to act out the creative exchange between designer and client, interviewed Gehry in front of several dozen New York City journalists. Where Thomas’ questions were expressive, Gehry’s answers were perfunctory. The same can be said about the building’s main façade, which is adjacent to the public park and speaks to their artistic collaboration. One half is MTT territory: a 7,000-square-foot white stucco exterior projection wall that will be used for a wide variety of outdoor video programming, including public simulcasts of concerts going on inside. The other half is given over to an 80-foot-high glass curtain wall. The beefy structure needed to hold back the Gulf Coast’s breezes by engineers Gilsanz, Murray, Steficek is behind the glazed surface. Gehry’s sculptural gestures are kept to a minimum—just a few rain canopy flourishes to mark the entrance.

Once inside, Gehry gets a chance for playful geometries reminiscent of his beachier days. The composition recalls the village-like Edgemar Development in Santa Monica that he designed in the mid-1980s—smallish retail and gallery pavilions clustered around a central plaza. In Miami Beach, a sky-lit atrium cuts through the middle of the building. Although enclosed, it has the feel of a courtyard. Object-like practice and rehearsal rooms cluster in one corner (each wired to the teeth with fiber-optic cable and theatrical lighting for potential broadcast). An open, curvy stair ascends through the space, linking the ground floor to the concert hall’s upper galleries and the academy’s offices. All convex and concave surfaces are painted white, leaving them neutral enough to serve as backdrop for video projections or event lighting (think Design Miami). The blue titanium canopy (Gehry’s one metal moment) that shelters the glass concession bar is a singular hit of color.

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Left to right: The glass curtain wall glows at night, gesture on the exterior of the New World Symphony, and a view of the main auditorium.
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Although similar in program, Disney Hall and the New World Symphony’s performance space do not lend themselves to comparison. The two differ widely in scope, scale, and budget. The Floridian auditorium suffers from an overabundance of technical wizardry. Flexibility reigns: a shape-shifting main stage endlessly reconfigures and smaller performance platforms dot the hall; tiers of seating can be removed for dance parties or added for intimae chamber music ensembles; a large window can be opened to the bustle of the street or shaded.

Meanwhile, a suite of video projectors and cameras are positioned to capture every move in the nearly all-white room. Gehry also designed the white and teal brush-stroke patterned seats upholstery (apparently to reflect a kind of cruise-ship chic). The project’s limitations turned the atrium into a worthwhile nostalgic trip through the architect’s mid-career oeuvre, but it’s a free-for-all in the auditorium. With so many options, one wishes for more of the one with a little restraint.

Mimi Zeiger