Learning Curve Frank Gehry's "Swoopy" Vision for The Experience Music Project Created a Chorus of Circuitous Challenges for the Attraction's Design Team

Cozily nestled in downtown Seattle Center, in company with such icons from the 1962 World's Fair as the monorail, Pacific Science Center, and the Space Needle, Experience Music Project (EMP) is the $240-million brainchild of Seattle billionaire and devoted Jimi Hendrix fan Paul Allen and his sister Jody Allen Patton. Open since June, the controversial biomorphic building was designed by Frank Gehry to fulfill Allen's request for something "swoopy." Within its remarkably habitable, versatile spaces are interactive, entertaining, and educational exhibits and attractions devoted to rock-and-roll music, in which the presentation makes optimal use of audiovisual technology. Within its 140,000 sq. ft., this super-wired facility commands enough power to run 800 homes, fed by one motherlode server room and nine branch server rooms. Four thousand people a day now visit EMP, for an average stay of five hours. The 200,000th guest passed through its doors on the 58th day after opening. Director of design and construction Paul Zumwalt of Vulcan Northwest rejects the term "museum" and refers to EMP as an "attraction."

Exhibits include the Hendrix Gallery, the Guitar Gallery, and the Roots & Branches sculpture made of 600 guitars and other instruments by Seattle artist Trimpin. Northwest Passage covers the musical history of Seattle from early jazz through grunge and beyond. The Learning Lab is for seminars and workshops and the 200-seat JBL Theatre is for special video and film presentations, lectures, and performances. Voyeurs and participants alike love On Stage, where you get to play "Wild Thing" in front of a screaming crowd - and take home a souvenir poster of the occasion. Three of the most elaborate, interactive areas are Sound Lab, where guests of all abilities play instruments and learn about music production; Artist's Journey, a ride simulation experience; and Sky Church, a multipurpose performance and gathering space.

Slung over each guest's shoulder is MEG, the hefty, interactive audio guide of the future, designed and built by Vulcan Northwest with a 4MB hard drive and access to 20 hours of material that transforms the place into a walk-through website. "It's a Palm Pilot on steroids," says John Miceli of Soundelux Showorks, which provided numerous services to EMP, including the configuration of MEG, installation of MEG's supporting rack gear, and A/V work in other parts of the building. According to Miceli, MEG functions through a combination of three technologies: radio frequency, infrared, and inductive loop. Just aim your pointer at a location with a receiver, and MEG downloads information onto the hard drive, bookmarking items of interest.

Within the fluid, theatrical spaces of EMP constant change is anticipated, because music and technology are always changing. "Flexibility is our mantra," says Zumwalt. EMP's mandate is that 20% of its content will change every year. As much of the space is kept as open as possible - to preserve the sense of the building design itself, which is integral to the experience, and to support versatility of content. EMP is alive with category six fiber-optic cable, accessed through removable floor panels. "When the next level of wire pathway comes in, we'll reroute it," says Zumwalt.

EMP's open layout, combined with the eccentricities of the building itself - a shell of resonant shotcrete (used to fabricate swimming pools), sound-reflecting curved walls, and one-of-a-kind spaces (the building contains no right angles and no duplicated elements - had concept designers and fabricators, sound and lighting designers, and acousticians working at full mental and technological capacity. (At this point, it would be appropriate to observe a moment of respectful silence in honor of the many designers who came and went during the several years it took EMP to get on track. This is one of those projects where the later you were hired on, the more likely you were to see your ideas realized and yourself recognized on opening day.)

"The acoustic challenge was to contain sound without walls, to replicate high-quality studio spaces in tiny booths, and to create performance spaces for music second to none," says Mark Holden of Jaffe Holden Scarbrough Acoustics, Inc., who worked closely with EMP director of exhibits Ann Farrington to design acoustics for much of the facility.

"We couldn't attach to any FOGA [Frank O. Gehry & Associates] walls," says Jeremy Windle of Moody Ravitz Hollingsworth (MRH), which did lighting design and scenic rigging for the Artist's Journey ride simulation experience at EMP. "There could be no exposed junction boxes, and the conduit had to run a certain way. Our maximum ceiling height was 10 11/42'. In the lobby area, the ceiling was glass. We ultimately found a system to attach fixtures to mullions and to freestanding walls."

"We couldn't touch the building," echoes Lawrence Lester of Lester Creative, technical producer on the project. "We couldn't connect to it in any way. All the scenery and equipment is supported by itself. We had to model everything in 3D to make sure we weren't encroaching, because there isn't a square corner in this building."

Fortunately, budget wasn't a big issue, thanks to what project insiders affectionately refer to as "SPAM" (Spend Paul Allen's Money). "We never knew what the budget was," says Holden. "We were told, `Just give us the best and we'll see if we can get it to happen.' " This did not apply universally: Budget money flowed most freely to the areas that would hold interactive, entertaining installations, in interiors not designed by FOGA. The extent of the bankroll was more clearly defined for those under direct contract to FOGA, working on the exteriors and the FOGA-designed interiors of the main lobby, restaurants, and retail - areas that won't be altered as much or as often as the exhibit areas, and don't demand the same kind of technical fluidity. "You have to understand where you are on the food chain," remarks Norm Schwab of Lightswitch, which provided lighting design to FOGA for these non-exhibit areas, and enjoyed the privilege of attaching fixtures to the building shell.

Figuring out how to fabricate the building itself was the first obstacle. It couldn't have been erected without the super-sophisticated, French military modeling technology, CATIA, which enabled complete three-dimensional realization and positioning of its custom-curved steel ribs and other unique structural elements. These computer models were essential to construction and also to the A/V designers in creating their own solutions for the interior spaces. The architecture is inseparable from the design in that it absolutely dictated the technical constraints of design. But since the exhibit design components were kept physically separate from the building, only the building itself and a few of its interiors are permanent. While the bleeding-edge building will eventually date, most everything it contains will update.

Acoustics were very carefully choreographed throughout. "We needed to control the sound reflections but didn't want it to be lifeless, without color," says Holden, whose company was brought onto the project in 1997 by Farrington, with whom he had worked on the National Holocaust Museum and the Newseum. "We had to be sure sound would reflect in some areas. We worked to match the aural experience with the visual. In museums, those often don't match. We wanted energy and excitement, but under control and localized."

Throughout the building, with few exceptions, sound programming travels to its destination via BSS Soundweb using versatile digital signal processing technology. The main signal source is in the basement, from which it is routed to more localized rack and equipment rooms to feed other localities. Also in the basement is the 96-channel video server. "It's a tremendous infrastructure," says Miceli. "It's amazing to pull up a floor tile and see the amount of cable, and how cleanly it is installed and integrated." The master control system for most of the building is by Pacific Interactive.

Other audio equipment in the public spaces includes a wide array of JBL speakers, from Control 1 full range two-ways to Control 5 full range two-way passives to C26T two-ways, three Level Control Systems LD-88G 8 x 8 digital mixers with a Wildtracks playback card, Crown CP-660 six-channel amps, and a variety of QSC Rave Cobra-Net inputs and outputs.

Lighting the public spaces of the building was complicated by its variety of materials, especially metals and plywood. "Most of the time, we lit the plywood opposite the shiny surfaces," says Schwab, who worked under the direction of FOGA reps Craig Webb, George Metzger, Larry Tighe, and Doug Pierson. On Schwab's project team were Tim Becker, Kelly Roberson, Jim Holliday, and Adam Rechner. "Sometimes, we lit the shiny surface directly. There are places where you can look in from the outside that are lit very brightly to give them depth.

"Frank Gehry would love his buildings to be lit just with the sun," continues Schwab. "That's somewhat possible during the day, but very impossible at night. We tried to light the space in an architectural and theatrical manner. That may bring to mind something Vegas-y, but I mean something with very controlled light, the ability to dim, controlled beam angles, the ability to put color and frost in lamps, and to pan, tilt, and focus. These surfaces needed that kind of carefully controlled source."

Schwab's team used metal halide lamps, Altman Star PAR 75W and ETC 175W ellipsoidals, to light the cafe by day. "In the daytime, it's a daylight blue," he says, "and at night, this incredible saturated blue, to contrast with the really gorgeous plywood walls above. We used a slight color correction to keep the look of the wood, tuning the lights to give sufficient contrast." The nighttime look was achieved using Hydrel floods with a Venture lamp. "It creates the blue out of the lamp itself - the gases are dyed, like MGM's green on the Las Vegas Strip," Schwab adds.

Glass billboards above the ticket counter have backlighting and front illumination for a variety of effects. To make the glass transparent, the wall behind is brightly lit with metal halides. For a translucent look, incandescent ETC ellipsoidals are fixed to the back of the glass. To achieve opacity, the front is lit with Altman MR-16 striplights.

In retail areas, the ceiling is 60'-70' high. "We didn't want to create additional catwalks," says Schwab. "The lights had to be very specific, so we placed them and FOGA's people designed structures to cantilever them out from the cabinets, with Unistruts. They look custom, but used kits that any electrician is familiar with."

The exterior lighting is still ongoing. "Gehry thought at first that his buildings shouldn't be lit on the outside," Schwab says. But when the outdoor work lights were cleared away, FOGA missed the illumination and asked Lightswitch to make suggestions. "We did a charrette where we brought every kind of fixture out there to see the effect," he continues. "It was a great luxury to do it that way." Candela and Sparling designed the control systems.

Like others, Lightswitch made use of the CATIA models to create its own CAD drawings. "We turned them into Lightscape files and input the lights and surface materials to get incredibly complicated renderings," Schwab says. "We gave FOGA samples of every fixture in exactly the state it would be ordered. They would create it in the CATIA model and the 3D physical model and show them to Frank Gehry. They had a number of physical models, in different sizes; the process was more detailed than I've ever seen from any architectural company. FOGA cares a lot about the look of their spaces. They're architects, but they're artists, too."

The three most elaborate areas of EMP - Sound Lab, the Artist's Journey, and Sky Church - also share that blend of art and architecture.

Sound Lab holds a cluster of individual music tutorial stations, each adjustable to the guest's level of ability. "Containment, focusing, and controlling sound in the various performance spaces, galleries and exhibits was the goal," says Holden. "Ann Farrington and curator Andrea Weatherhead inspired us to imagine spaces where visitors would learn critical listening skills and be able to hear the subtleties of music production and creative processes without distractions, in exhibits without walls or doors or any visible means of acoustic baffling. They wanted a realistic sound level with full frequency range, from deep bass to sizzling treble, without headphones."

This sparked Jaffe Holden Scarbrough to develop its new Sound Platform Audio System. By manipulating the size of the acoustic glass partition between musicians, the acoustic treatment on the partition surfaces, and especially the sound delivery systems, conditions at each platform were optimized to create the fattest and loudest perceived sound by way of sophisticated signal processing. High-quality sound reaches the musician through four speakers close to his or her ears without significant bleed across the partition.

Along the outer walls of Sound Lab are miniature jamming and mixing studios. At the suggestion of Jaffe Holden Scarbrough, EMP installed 10 of Wenger Corporation's WAVE virtual reality sound pods. Says Holden, "An approximately 8' x 10' metal box resembling a walk-in freezer could be made to sound as if it were a small club, a large auditorium, or a 20,000-seat arena through the use of sophisticated electronic reflections and reverberation devices. We upgraded them with special floating wood floors and air systems for maximum performance."

Sound Lab has a more or less permanent framework, with the infrastructure of its booths and hardware, but all the software can be changed out and the wiring and other technology upgraded. The same is true of the ride simulation experience, Artist's Journey. It occupies four versatile spaces, in which EMP expects eventually to rotate two or more shows daily - a lobby, two preshow auditoriums outfitted with Barco video projectors, and the main auditorium with a 40-seat motion base and 5/70 film projection. Currently playing is Funk Blast, which introduces guests in stages to the music of James Brown and members of his band, culminating in a surreal, funk block party. The film was produced by Digital Domain, which also worked on early concept development. Other members of the Artist's Journey team were Craig Barr (project manager), Cuningham Group (architectural design), Cinnabar (scenery fabrication and installation), Lester Creative (technical producer), Michael Devine (art director), Soundelux Showorks (sound design), and Candela Controls (systems integration).

Ride simulation theatres don't often have theatrical lighting, but Artist's Journey is different. "The main idea is that the audience is part of the concert," says Jeff Ravitz of MRH, who lit the Artist's Journey theatre and is one of several EMP designers with experience in live music events and theatre. "In the concert field," he continues, "you design an effect waiting for a moment in the show." The catch was that "while we had some idea what the film was going to be about, we had no script or blow by blow. We didn't really have a clue until the 11th hour. So we set up something to cover all the bases, which can adapt well enough in the future."

Timing the show control from one theatre to the next was one of the biggest problems to solve. The audience leaves the first preshow lounge, in which they sit on benches to watch multiple video screens, to experience the next portion of the show while standing on a ramp enclosing a three-sided room with set pieces in the center (lowered by a hidden crane, through an oculus in the ceiling) and video screens on the walls. "Controlling this part of the show and the final act to come with two separate consoles would have worked," says Ravitz, "but they asked us to find a single console to lock in both shows, SMPTE timecode-wise. This would create potential timing issues if something cropped up to create a delay between show segments. Technology came to our rescue in the form of the Strand 510-i lighting playback controller. It has two lighting controllers, one for each act, and it links to the theatrical console via ethernet. Hands down, the system is pretty rad. It eliminated four wires and solved our problem." The master show controller for Artist's Journey is an Anitech system.

MRH project manager Jeremy Windle, who designed the lighting controls for Artist's Journey, praised the work of Cuningham Group's Wade Morgan. "He's our champion. He was the one onsite all the time, making sure everyone's best interests were taken care of." Windle also felt that Candela Controls was similarly essential in helping to coordinate the different disciplines involved in the project. "A project like this is beyond the realm of the typical controller, because you have theatrical and architectural lighting rolled into one," he says. "Very few of one understand the other."

The lobby and preliminary corridors of Artist's Journey take guests directly beneath Seattle's downtown monorail, visible through a skylight. Other elements add to the feeling of being in a transport station. "This is where you're getting on the soul train," says Lawrence Lester. "One wall started as a bottle wall and evolved into an abstract train. To give it a feel to suit the building, we used polycarbonate skylight material, which is almost impossible to bend. There's a 5-10ø-temperature window where you can work it. You have to preheat the mold and keep the environment controlled to maintain a constant temperature. Cinnabar handled that well." Dawn Hollingsworth lit the train wall with MR-11s and a strobe unit. "The colors are cool to warm," she says. "Fans blow down the length of the wall, and the Mylar and reflective material undulates."

In the main show theatre, the hydraulic, custom, six-axis motion base from MTS sits on a platform and track that enable it to slide forward 15' to 20' to carry the audience into the action. The 5/70 film projector with custom lens furnished by MEGAsystems throws images onto a Torus compound curved screen from Stewart Filmscreen. "We initially wanted to go with digital video," says Lester, "but the technology isn't quite there - not for the size and resolution we wanted. It will be there in the next couple of years." If, at that time, EMP wishes to install an upgrade, Lester's team has made it fairly simple. "The whole front wall can be unbolted and removed from the projection booth, and another wall bolted on."

The compound curved screen for Artist's Journey presents its own audio challenges. Known in casual parlance as a "suck screen" because it is pulled into shape and held in place through continuous suction, it is unperforated and speakers can't be placed behind it. To create the impression of sound coming from the center of the action, Soundelux Showorks positioned five channels over the screen and five below it. "We could send a combination of sound to directly above and below the center of the screen," explains Howard Schleiper, project manager with Soundelux Showorks. "With those 10 channels, we could control the panning of the sound from left to right and bottom to top." The complete custom system in the main theatre provides concert-quality sound through a total of 20 discrete channels plus a subwoofer channel. Soundelux Showorks stored the sound program on a hard-drive playback that feeds the channels and speakers, and performed the final mix onsite.

Other audio equipment on Artist's Journey includes Akai DR16 Pro 16-channel digital recorders, Crown 24 x 6, 3600VZ, 36 x 12, and 5000VZ amps, JBL Control 1, Control 1/70AW, Control 5, EON 15P, and SP-212A speakers, and Sennheiser assistive listening units.

Zumwalt calls Sky Church "the heart and soul" of EMP. It takes its name and purpose from an idea Hendrix talked about, of a place where people of all kinds would congregate to enjoy music. The multipurpose, cathedral-like, grand gathering space was designed by Gerard Howland of The Floating Company, with Ron Holthuysen of Scientific Art Studio and Ken Sly of Dimensional Graphics. Project producer was Stephen Seigel. Willie Williams was lighting designer and Soundelux Showorks took care of the audio. "The challenge was to preserve the feeling of the space itself and at the same time create a rock-and-roll atmosphere," says Holthuysen.

Notable features of Sky Church include the drifting fabric sculptures overhead, reminiscent of jellyfish, with glittering disco balls suspended from them to catch the light; the twin equipment towers that swerve and taper off at the top like sticks of sealing wax, to accommodate the curved ceilings; and the huger-than-huge, unique custom LED picket video screen that stretches the length of one long wall, 80' long and 37' high. "Our first design was much more complicated, with giant lava lamps and mirrors," says Howland, who was on his way back to the airport to work on a rock-and-roll Latin American music revue for Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas.

The first element of Sky Church that made it all the way through to design engineering on Ken Sly's CAD program was the catwalk. "We had to guess where the catwalk needed to go in order to install the elements that would follow it but that weren't designed yet," says Sly. "We designed its path and the height of its railings. FOGA and others added architectural elements."

The unusual LED screen consists of individual LED tiles, 9.41" square, provided by Sony and stacked into slots to form vertical pickets on which the image appears. Each picket is the same width, but the gaps between the pickets grow progressively larger towards the edges, to accommodate the curve of the screen, which forms a slice of a tilted cylinder. At the far reaches, faux pickets, created by Performance Structures, continue the pattern. When a video is playing, the gaps between the pickets are dark and the eye fuses the image together. When the screen is dark, twinkling lights show in the gaps. "It gave us the ability to not have a solid TV screen, and shine light through to Frank Gehry's structure," says Howland, whose company produced 10 custom music videos for the unique format that play daily at regular intervals, including two for which Howland wrote the songs himself. The entire screen is concealed and revealed by a huge, aluminum mesh fire scrim, of the same material used to curtain gas fireplaces. For conventional video, a separate screen can be lowered in front of it.

"It works like a Jumbotron," explains John Miceli of Soundelux Showorks, which provided A/V design and installation for Sky Church. "You send a video signal to the processor, which takes the signal and manipulates it to show on the LED screen." The signal can be fed either from the base building signal system, or from the `EJ' booth, the mission control center for live events at Sky Church, complete with a D8B mixing console, a lighting board, and a Pacific Interactive control system. Integrating audio with the picket screen was "cool, but a challenge," says Miceli. "We worked with Andrew Rudkin of JBL to make the sound seem to come from the screen." JBL custom-built live arrays on custom towers 8' high and 6" wide, installed behind individual pickets for punctuation and point-source audio. The 24-channel sound system includes 18 channels on the curving trusses, plus subwoofer. "The sound can come from anywhere," says Miceli. For lower speaker sound reinforcement, they installed VS 32-15 speakers on the lower rungs of the trusses. In the middle and upper rungs are installed custom speakers JBL created specially for Sky Church: EMP-SC1s and EMP-SC2s. All the speakers in Sky Church and throughout EMP are provided by JBL. "Working with them was a pleasant surprise," says Miceli. "I hadn't used JBL on that scale before, but they provided excellent products and showed themselves a very capable company." Amplifiers are JBL and Crown.

Other audio equipment in Sky Church includes ACT Enterprises Safer Sidearms, an LCS LD-88GT digital matrix mixer module, LCS Wild Tracks, and Shure Beta 57 and Beta 58 handheld mics.

Willie Williams, well known for his work on touring shows of U2 and other musicians, was lighting designer for Sky Church. "When I design a show, the point is to do something unique and specific that people have never seen. But here, others would use the space for all sorts of different functions with which I would have nothing to do," he says. "Some parts of the lighting needed to be generic. Small, moving light packages provide variety; these are mainly High End Studio Spots[TM] of the CYM series. They're hard-edged but have color-mixing ability. Normally, I prefer soft-edged lights, but for the flexibility needed in Sky Church, these have the availability of gobos and so forth. Atop the trusses are [High End] Turbo Cyberlights[R], which throw across the large distances of the building. We needed a punchy instrument that was flexible and reliable. Architectural fixtures supply brighter ambience for formal events - what I call `bar mitzvah lighting.' Here, our standard was 1kW quartz lights, installed behind the metal scrim, and along the scrim, MR-16s in three colors and white. It was quite interesting working with the scrim because of the way it deflects the light." To make the space unique, Williams' signature element worked with the gauze jellyfish shapes. "We put a ring of PAR-56 lights in each of those, like a chandelier," the LD says. The lights are controlled by an MA Lighting GrandMA console, and Williams programmed them to coordinate with the 10 custom videos. Between shows runs a 40-minute ambient loop. "Every 10 minutes, something kicks in. There are some lovely things that we created." His favorite effect has to do with the serendipitous placement of a big chrome Gehry sculpture in the ticket area outside. "We realized that we could bounce light off that into Sky Church, and it creates ripples all through the room. The effect is oddly church-like." Amen to that.