There is no way I was going to turn down an invitation for a private tour of the new Frank Gehry concert Hall in Miami Beach. A “behind the scenes” tour before the building opens to the public in January.
For those that don’t know, I’m not “symphony” inclined, although I come from a long background of musicians. Maybe it’s rebellion of hearing the 3 B’s growing up: Bach, Beethoven and a third that escapes me (that probably caused my grandpa to stir up in his grave). Either way....I’m very visual and very “architecturally inclined”, thus the interest in the “ungherified” concert hall. I will also like to add that my elementary school in Venezuela was a music school, where the principal, Emil Friedman, when he found out I had become an architect, told me that “architecture was crystallized music”. Very apropos for this experience.
The story behind the new building....shortened for brevity’s sake, is that Michael Tilson Thomas (Founder and Artistic Director of the New World Symphony, aka MTT), was babysat by Frank Gehry, who ended up designing the building because of their long established friendship. Miami Beach would get a top notch architectural landmark because of MTT’s influence! There were 3 aspects to the project: a parking structure, the actual concert hall, and a public park. Frank didn’t want to do the parking structure....DUH! why in the world would the City of Miami Beach commission a parking lot to a renown architect? But the city pushed and Gehry ended up doing the parking lot and the building, the budget then did not allow for the park, Gehry withdrew from the project and someone else did the park (West 8, a Dutch landscape architecture firm) <<< I’m over-simplifying here but want to get to the important part of the story, which is the building itself.
Of course I was bummed out that Gehry didn’t get to design the most important aspect of the project. The public park will be the key ingredient to incorporating the building into Lincoln Road’s existing life - if not done correctly, the city and the NWS will have to go back to the drawing table to make the space work. When I asked why a talented local like Raymond Jungles was not commissioned for the space, I was at least happy to hear that he had been hired to do the Rooftop terrace.
To understand the building and its program, here’s a brief history about The New World Symphony. The NWS is like none other in the planet - it’s not a professional orchestra but a fellowship program. It offers 3-year fellowships to graduates from places like The Juilliard School. Then fellows get jobs all over the world. MTT’s vision is to turn these musicians into community leaders that will spread the word of music (music evangelists of sorts). Another very ambitious goal is to get people like me, who wouldn’t be interested in music, to attend concerts and see what the fuss is all about. He communicated his goal of getting more participation from different generational and cultural types to Frank Gehry who then created his work of art.
I started documenting the “Gehryfication” of the structure from the moment construction began and to my and others’ surprise, it was pretty damn boxy. FOR REAL? A Frank Gehry building that did not have his signature? Especially when he’s known for “turning his pencil against traditional box-shaped buildings”**. What in the world was going on?
As the box continued to get finished, I hoped that the gehryfication happened in the interior and that’s why I was so happy to go on the tour. I am happy to inform you that it DOES happen in the interior and once you hear the concept, it all starts making more and more sense. According to Gehry, this was to be a “program driven building”, and as you can tell by the complicated program, this would be no easy task.
The building was purposely not “gehriesque” on the outside. It was not to be a “precious building” with his typical titanium clad. It was supposed to be a building that was inviting, that would tell people to come in and experience the music, it was to provide a different concert experience. The outside was to stay within the architectural language of Miami Beach, but in the spirit of engagement and wanting people to be curious about the building, a glass facade would reveal the interior functions. Gehry talked about the idea of “the building putting on a performance” - you can see the interior gehriesque shapes and these would become the players on the stage, the glass would be the proscenium of stage and audience would be the people in the park. The building would be a glass box, where people could see the transformation of music and be drawn to participate. Talk about a romantic architectural concept! Which can be extra exciting when it actually works....can’t wait to see the people/building interaction.
Craig Hall, vice president for communications, and tour guide extraordinaire, explained the most intricate details behind the planning of the space including MTT’s vision and actual realization of his goals. I found the circulation concept to be fascinating, with the idea of visual access between public and private areas within the concert hall - the audience can see the fellows in action in the “back of house” areas. The concert hall would be one of the most flexible in the world with round seating, satellite stages, interchangeable main stage with 10 movable lifts and platforms to change configuration, and acoustic panels or sails that receive projection. The audience would be surrounded by music, would not be detached from it and the furthest seat from stage would be 13 rows away. The hall also has retractable seating to accommodate different events and we were even told about one of their performance ideas or new cultural experiences - we are psyched to go in February when they try it out.
Club style concerts (pulse) from 10PM to 2 AM with a dj spinning in the center platform, portable bars around it and club lighting - interrupted every so often with a small chamber ensemble or soloist with a 10 minute concert of short contemporary classical music similar to music spun by dj - show people that like club music that they may also enjoy classical music.
Needless to say, walking into the space and smelling that new construction scent gave me goosebumps. The drywall work was pretty fantastic and so unlike Miami workmanship (except for a few places here and there that need fixing). I caressed wooden handrails, undressed the radical angles and sensed the building’s yearning to be alive. I could also recognize some apprehension and heavy burden from it trying to realize its creator’s ambitious goals - like a child wanting to impress his teacher but not sure if he could live up to the master’s expectations. I have a feeling we will be surprised by the organic growth and development in the coming months. Like all new buildings, some new uses will appear on the way and some others will be quickly discarded. One thing we can't deny is The New World Symphony's creative ideas on reaching its audience.
My great friend Frank Gehry has designed a building that embodies everything we stand for. It offers the serious, technologically advanced resources we have long needed to showcase our depth of talent. At the same time, it’s playful, inviting, and yes, life-affirming - very much in keeping with the community we call home.”
- Michael Tilson Thomas, co-founder/artistic director
The thrill for me is to invent with Michael - almost a member of my family - a new kind of facility, one that works for what he is bringing to music and, I hope, what I can bring to the experience of music with my architecture. I’m very excited about doing this.
- Frank Gehry, architect
**Frank Gehry by Valerie Bodden
**thank you to NICOLAI OUROUSSOFF of The New York Times for making reference to Miamism in his Gehry Design Plays Fanfare for the Common Man article**