Seattle's $118.1 million Benaroya Hall is a temple to symphonic music, an important new space whose striking architecture is complemented by superb, world-class acoustics. Inaugurated in September, the new home of the Seattle Symphony Orchestra occupies an entire city block in the heart of downtown Seattle and overlooks Puget Sound and the Seattle Art Museum.
The rectangular body of Benaroya Hall contains two auditoriums: a 2,502-seat concert hall and a 541-seat recital hall. Enclosed in a wall of clear and frosted glass, the towering, semi-cylindrical lobby juts like the prow of a luxury liner from its steeply sloping site. The building's block-long east side features a glass-enclosed arcade that contains the facility's box office and a variety of shops and cafes. Along the south and west sides, a Garden of Remembrance features granite walls engraved with the names of Washington State's war dead, slender reflecting pools, trees, flower beds, walkways, and cascading water.
Benaroya Hall is perhaps unique among contemporary concert halls in that acoustical considerations were the primary driving engine behind the architectural design. Through a long, tortuous gestation period that involved two separate sites, famed acoustical consultant Cyril Harris and design partner Mark Reddington of Seattle-based LMN Architects (Loschky, Marquardt & Nesholm) labored to produce a hall they hoped would rank among the world's finest.
"It was a very collaborative process," says Reddington. "The acoustical issues had such fundamental influences on the design of both the performance halls and the entire building, that Cyril was a key part of almost every decision." Harris, whose acoustical designs include the Metropolitan Opera House, St. Louis' Powell Symphony Hall, Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Abravenal Hall in Salt Lake City, the reconstruction of Lincoln Center's Avery Fisher Hall and the New York State Theatre, says the final product was everything they hoped for.
"There's no question in my mind that it [Benaroya Hall] is the best hall I've ever done. It's not only world class, but of all the halls I've been in--and I've visited most of the great European halls--I've never heard a hall like this one."
Reddington says two distinct ideas shaped the building: making a facility that combined distinctive streetscapes and an environment that supported the city's quality of life, while at the same time making a distinctive sculptural expression of the performance hall and its lobby. To that end, the architect and his design team spent a lot of time together in the studio with Harris, working together on models and experimenting with different strategies. "The idea," Reddington explains, "was to take the acoustical design components as Cyril described them and make those a fundamental characteristic of the architecture."
Harris, who developed a close working relationship with Reddington, notes, "In general, many architects don't like having a consultant coming in and saying, 'This is the shape it's going to be, this is the kind of wall treatment we're going to have.' But we were able to work together as a team, and, in the end, there wasn't anything I wanted to do that he [Reddington] felt was a constraint on his architectural design."
Insulating the auditorium from noise and vibration was a prime consideration. The hall's parking garage and a Metro bus tunnel are below, while an underground Burlington Northern railway tunnel lies close by. Harris' solution was a self-contained box-within-a-box, separated by a 9" dead-air space. The auditorium rests on 310 massive rubber bearings to prevent the transmission of noise to the concert hall environment. Another 224 bushings are installed vertically to absorb side-to-side movement and vibration.
"I've used the box-within-a-box concept for at least the last 35 years," Harris explains. "It is a means of keeping out outside noises so that it is very quiet within the hall. When it's very quiet during pianissimos, you get a very wide dynamic range."
"Other than the performers," Reddington says, "the audience makes more sound than anything in the hall."
The interior of the concert hall is a harmonious combination of wood and plaster surfaces. A massive C. B. Fisk organ rises from the rear of the stage with ranks of gleaming poplar, pine, and alloy pipes. Clad in rich veneer, the sculptured walls are composed of a series of linked panels. The dominant sculptural shape is an oblong, truncated pyramid. Similar motifs are repeated on the facing of the three-tiered balcony and side-wall box seats, and the coffered ceiling. The result is a multitude of angled reflective surfaces, providing highly uniform sound diffusion throughout the auditorium.
According to Reddington, nine different types of wood were used in the main hall, including the oak flooring of both auditorium and stage. Some 2,500 panels were required to face the 60'-high walls. Because the grain had to match exactly, much of the 1/40"-thick mahogany veneer was sliced from a single African makore tree.
Harris' approach to acoustics relies on what he calls past experience with new innovations. "What the paneling in the hall does is essentially the equivalent of Boston Symphony Hall or Vienna's Grosser Musikvereinssaal Hall, in that it has irregular surfaces of all different sizes that scatter the sound around, which makes the reflected sound uniform around the hall,' he says. "Also, the way the sound dies away is very uniform if you have good diffusion. Old halls like Boston have regular, fairly uniform decay curves, but I think this is even more so. What those irregular surfaces do in Benaroya is the same as the pilasters, statuary, niches, columns, and balcony faces in the old halls."
Harris says the use of wood in the side paneling has also aided the hall's bass response. "Benaroya has terrific bass. The bass sounds are not lost as they are in many modern halls. I wanted wood flooring because you should be able to feel the vibration of the timpani, for example, under your feet."
The acoustician credits Seattle Symphony music director Gerard Schwarz with providing significant help in the development of Benaroya's acoustics. "Music directors usually are unable to express what they want in words that will help the designer," Harris notes. "But Gerry knew what he wanted, and what he wanted, he got. The great success of the hall, to a large degree, can be attributed to his involvement."
Harris also feels the combination of full, rich sound, reverberation, and clarity is unusual. "Usually you get one or the other,' he says. "I must have spent 20 hours sitting on the stage with the musicians during rehearsals and they made comments like, 'You know, I've been with the orchestra for 18 years and I always wondered what the second violins were doing.'"
Reaction to the new recital auditorium has also been positive. Created as a complementary space to the main auditorium, the 540-seat recital hall was designed as a venue for small ensembles and solo artists. Situated at the site's north end, a similar treatment of sculpturally shaped triangular surfaces is used to maximize the hall's acoustics with warm cherry wood enclosing the stage house and floor.
Although Benaroya Hall was built for one specific purpose--the performance of symphonic music in an acoustically appropriate environment--provisions needed to be made for a variety of uses. David Taylor of Theatre Projects Consultants in Ridgefield, CT, says that no concert hall will go into the next century being able to support only purely symphonic use. "We know that those halls designed without the ability to vary away from pure symphonic use have difficult challenges to make themselves work in a modern environment," he explains. "If we build a concert hall for the next century strictly for symphonic use, it will either close because it can't afford to continue, or be torn apart by people seeking to address those other needs."
Taylor, who was responsible for the theatrical aspects of the room, adds, "Keeping symphonic music alive means getting people into the building for other things, and then making a critical mass of those people go to symphony concerts. You have a generation arriving which has the money to go to concerts, who are an MTV, televisual generation, who are used to a much more stimulating visual experience than looking at an orchestra for two hours under white light. It's incumbent on us all to make sure, without compromising those things that are so important to symphony performances--great acoustics and great architecture--to ease in those systems that will help us extend that range and flexibility."
As theatre consultant for the entire facility, Theatre Projects found itself in an unusual position. "We're generally a very involved, lead member of the design team, one of the triumvirate that designs the room," says Taylor. "In this instance, it was an unusual process for us, because this concert hall was designed by a very strong acoustical consultant supported by a very practical and wonderful architect. We had to very carefully theatricalize the result."
To that end, Taylor specified a lighting system and lighting support system that enable the hall to put non-symphonic, non-white light products within the space as quickly and economically as possible. "We reviewed and advised on the theatre planning and the theatre design," Taylor notes. "We worked with LMN and the acoustical consultant to make sure that the platform was going to be large enough and clear enough and that the support spaces would be suitable for use other than by the Seattle Symphony."
Although Benaroya Hall has no fly house, Taylor says it does have connections to attach very substantial loads over the stage, which resolve to the structural systems above. Theatre Projects installed rigging connections, chain hoist systems, a truss system, and a control system for the rigging. Working with the architect, Taylor and crew designed a system of hook eyes for theatrical chain hoists. Theatre Projects provided specific hoists to go into those areas and an integrated control system that allows users access to a number of chain motors at once, as well as winches to move items off the ground, over the stage, and over the auditorium.
"In the auditorium the hooks are above, in the catwalk area, and pass through acoustically sealed holes in the ceiling. The ceiling is another acoustic barrier, and we have a lighting provision above the ceiling that goes through glass. Our key criteria, obviously, was to have a quiet and acoustically superior room.'
To achieve that goal, Theatre Projects mounted a unique lighting installation that utilizes the largest installed system of Rosco/Entertainment Technology's Intelligent Power System (IPS) dimmers within a concert hall environment.
"We were very impressed,' Taylor says of the installation. "Given the scale of this project, it was to some degree a leap of faith to go with this quantity of IPS dimmers combined in one dimmer room. We were very happy with the installation of the product and how it worked. This offers us who design concert halls a cost-effective, higher quality option than we've had in the past."
The concert lighting is all Electronic Theatre Controls, Inc. (ETC) equipment. "We actually have a mix of ETC Source Fours-- ETC Source Four PARs with lens kits so we have multiple lens widths, and Source Four ellipsoidals," explains Taylor. "The performance lighting is a mix of equipment including Altman Shakespeares. The performance equipment workhorses are various beam-width Altman Shakespeare ellipsoidals."
The control console in the Main Hall is a regular PC running Rosco/ET's Horizon Gold software, with the Rosco interface. A custom fader wing with some manual interface was added to enable submasters without going onto the computer screen. The smaller Recital Hall uses Rosco/ET's Eclipse console.
According to lighting designer E. Teal Brogden, who worked side by side with Theatre Projects on the concert lighting for the symphony, even the world's quietest installation had a few quirks. "There were some lamps that arrived on the job site that were singing like crickets," she quips. "We actually had to use another manufacturer's light bulb with a filament of a different arrangement to keep them from singing. In most spaces, one would never notice that because the ambient noise level would have drowned out the sound. But because the hall itself is so quiet, the filament hum was plainly audible."
Brogden, VP of San Francisco-based Horton Lees, was also responsible for the lighting design of the exterior of the building, including the landscape lighting, as well as all the public lobby spaces. She says some of the driving factors in the design were in response to the unique qualities of the Pacific Northwest.
"Because the light [in Seattle] can be kind of cold and rainy, we thought it was important to provide a warm, incandescent, glowing light with a very warm color temperature. The other thing that was really enjoyable was the Pacific Northwest's great history of glass artistry. Some wonderful glass was included in the design of a number of the project's light fixtures."
Benaroya Hall is also equipped with the latest in sound reinforcement technology. According to senior consultant Ashton Taylor of Houston-based Hoover and Keith, Inc., the sound system in the main auditorium is a high-quality, wide-bandwidth system, which can subtly amplify the most delicate solo instrument or handle an electronic, contemporary pop performance. Capable of generating a 110dB sound level, the system's noise floor is extremely low, thus allowing the greatest possible dynamic range of amplified music.
"A 52-input x eight-group Crest Century Vx mixing console can be set up in one of two different locations," Taylor explains, "a front-of-house position or in a backstage audio equipment room, which is equipped with two BMW monitors."
Feeding the console are 48 microphone inputs scattered across the stage, each with its own Benchmark Media MP-3 mic-preamp and a built-in, five-way distribution amplifier on each output. "One of the five outputs is used for the sound system,the others are for recording and other uses,' Taylor says. "They are run through a routing switcher, which allows any onstage microphone jack to be routed to any mixer input."
Signal processing is effected through a TOA DACSys unit and one remote Oxmoor volume attenuator. BSS Audio delay units are used "almost as distribution amplifiers" to various sizes of Bryston power amplifiers for low, mid, and high frequency speakers.
The hall's four-way speaker system utilizes all Renkus-Heinz speakers. "They were chosen because they have a very neutral frequency response and because they are relatively small for their output," says Taylor. "The system utilizes two subwoofer units and one low-frequency unit, both packed with four drivers so their outputs are approximately equal. Mid-high frequency devices from the Renkus-Heinz CE series provide defined coverage to specific areas."
Taylor says the recital hall has a simpler, more conventional system with microphone jacks going directly to mixers. The speakers are the Renkus-Heinz SR series.
Aside from the performance halls, the lobby was one of the creative team's key issues, says Reddington. "It has a terrific setting. You've got all of the other buildings and streets, the art museum, Puget Sound in the distance--all those things as a backdrop. We wanted to capture the drama of being in the middle of all that, and, at the same time, have the lobby with its circular geometry promote an internal focus and sense of community. The stairs are organized to allow people to look over the various balcony levels, see the other members of the audience, and get a feeling of the view."
Reddington considers the basic organization of the building and the way people use it to be very successful. "It's fun to be there in the lobby," he notes. "In fact, it seems to be so attractive that people have to be urged to leave the lobby and go into the hall."