Two New Venues Open at Houston's Hobby Center for the Performing Arts

Deep in the heart of Texas is the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts, a handsome addition to the downtown arts scene in Houston. Designed by Robert A.M. Stern Architects (design architect) in conjunction with the Houston office of Morris Architects (architect of record), the Hobby Center houses two performance venues, the 2,650-seat Sarofim Hall and the 500-seat Zilkha Hall. Fisher Dachs Associates (FDA) served as theatre consultants, with Jaffe Holden Acoustics serving as acoustic consultants. The Hobby Center opened with much fanfare in May 2002.

The graceful building has a glass-walled facade looking out onto neighboring Tranquility Park. The main entrance and box office are on street level with two grand staircases leading to the lobby and rear of the orchestra-level seating area. “The lobby areas are generous so the audience does not feel compressed,” says Bob Campbell, senior consultant and project manager for Fisher Dachs Associates.

“Houston already has both a dedicated symphony hall and opera house,” notes Campbell. “This meant we were able to design Sarofim Hall specifically for the Broadway musical, without the compromises of a multipurpose hall with a moveable concert shell or the encumbrance of an opera house with a very large orchestra pit.” In Sarofim Hall, the orchestra pit is designed to hold a Broadway touring orchestra, a size that allows the front rows of seats to be closer to the stage than in an opera house.

“We were lucky to have been brought onto the project early and to have completed a feasibility study and building program to determine the programmatic requirements of the two halls,” Campbell adds. “Subsequently, Robert A.M. Stern, Morris Architects, and Jaffe Holden were brought on. A really great collaboration developed into a really terrific project.” From FDA's point of view, this project met the ideal in theatre design: being able to design from the auditorium out, with an architect who doesn't let the architecture compromise the function of the venue.

“We ended up with an intimate room, a large 133' × 55' highly functional stage, and an ideal spatial relationship between the performers and the audience,” says Campbell about Sarofim Hall. And because the hall was purpose-built for the Broadway musical, the sightlines are perfect. “There is also good circulation in the lobby areas and backstage, where there are 8' minimum-width corridors that allow both road cases and performers ample access in busy backstage areas.”

The Acoustic Challenge

At a cost of $94 million, one of the major concerns for the Hobby Center was the acoustics. To begin with, noisy highways flank the building site, which also sits not too far from a police station with an active helicopter pad. “Noise isolation was important, but not the biggest challenge,” says Mark Holden, principal of Jaffe Holden, a Norwalk, CT, firm.

Perhaps most challenging was designing the acoustics for Sarofim Hall. “We had to create a kind of room that never existed before,” says Holden, referring to a 2,650-seat room that needed to be matched acoustically to Broadway productions. “The sound needs to be clear and very present, yet not overload the hall or be distorted when loud. The music should be full, rich, and enveloping,” explains Holden, who also worked for great intelligibility in the songs. “The audience should be able to understand every syllable that comes from the stage,” he adds. “The requirements are very different from a concert hall or a venue for straight plays.”

The acoustic design was based on the needs of the two primary end users of the hall, the resident Theatre Under the Stars, and the Houston Broadway Series presented by the Society for the Performing Arts and Clear Channel Entertainment (formerly Pace Theatricals). “This room is larger than most Broadway houses, yet it needs to specifically support the enhanced sound of musicals and create the visual and acoustical intimacy and contact you get in a smaller hall.”

Sarofim Hall's double-balcony design, with the upper balcony closer to the stage than the mezzanine below it, helps achieve this sense of intimacy yet also creates the acoustical challenge of getting sound to each of the under-balcony seats. “The room is designed as a lyric theatre with side boxes, yet most of the seats look straight at the stage,” Holden notes. The seats, by Irwin Seating, are wood with dark blue upholstery. There is carpet in the aisles and painted concrete under the seats.

Helping fine-tune this room is a large ceiling dome with 2,000 fiber-optic points twinkling like summer solstice in the Texas sky (after all this is the home of Theatre Under the Stars) with wood and fabric lattice giving the walls the look of an outdoor gazebo. Architectural lighting designer Anne Kale of New York City conceived the fiber-optic effect.

Holden explains that the ceiling dome is tilted 5° for optimum distribution of the sound into the upper balcony and so that sound is not concentrated in the orchestra level. “The dome edge also sends sound back to the stage,” he says. “This allows the performers to hear realistically as well.”

Wood lattice over fabric on the side walls is designed to absorb, as well as reflect, a neutral sound. This is critical in the under-balcony areas, where the sound must be absorbed so that it does not bounce back toward the stage. To help achieve this, the back wall is straight, rather than curved, with fabric covering sound-absorbing materials.

A uniquely designed orchestra pit plays an important acoustic role as well. “The orchestra pit is the source area for a Broadway musical,” notes Holden, who worked with the consultants at FDA to create a uniquely designed pit for Sarofim Hall. “There is quite a bit of flexibility, more than any other pit that has been designed, I believe,” he adds. “It is like a state-of-the-art recording studio.” Part of the uniqueness comes from an adjustable floor, allowing the elevations of the main pit area, as well as side and rear areas, to be modified to optimize orchestrations and instrumentation. Four-inch-thick acoustical panels on the walls and ceiling of the orchestra pit can track into different positions.

Special decompression zones exist at the sides of the pit. “This is especially important for high-energy instruments that can overload the microphone. The decompression zones allow the sound to dissipate before hitting the mic and the result is a cleaner sound,” Holden notes. The orchestra pit sits on an electrically powered Gala Spiralift with 22,500lb capacity, installed by Protech in Las Vegas.

Broadway musicals obviously require a reinforced sound system, and for Holden, it is critical that the acoustics and reinforcement systems work well together. “All of the sound is projected from the loudspeakers positioned around the room, so you must analyze each source, no matter where it is, from the proscenium opening to the under balcony, and make sure the sound energy reaches the ears one time and then gets absorbed,” he explains. To make sure the sound reaches everyone at the correct time, there are delay rings in the under-balcony, over-balcony, and side box areas.

In the smaller 500-seat Zilkha Hall, the acoustic challenge was to create a multipurpose room that sounds good for a varied menu of performing arts events, including a series called “Uniquely Houston.”

To achieve the optimum natural acoustics for this room, a volume of 400 cu. ft. per person (or a total of 200,000 cu. ft.) was set and maintained (even through rigorous value engineering sessions).

“Innovative flexibility was the watchword,” says Holden, whose challenges in this hall included creating the right acoustical ambiance for classical music in a space where the stage house, drapes, and drops could potentially get in the way. “We needed to create a hall that works for everything from classical to loud amplified music. So while Sarofim Hall has a small number of acoustic drapes to fine tune the room, Zilkha Hall has numerous acoustic drapes stored in pockets and voids in the upper part of the room. These track out when needed, on motorized rigging by Protech, to cover the side walls, which when uncovered have custom plaster over concrete-filled block for a reflective finish,” says Holden.

The side walls in the front third of the room are splayed at a 7° angle, creating what Holden calls the “acoustic throat” of the venue. “The shaping of the side walls and ceiling were critical to getting the correct articulation of sound,” he says, noting that there is also an acoustic reflector made of wood over the stage in a fixed position, and a tunable wood concert enclosure for chamber music, soloists, and recitals. The orchestra pit is on an electrically powered LinkLift® provided and installed by Protech, which also provided all of the drapes and soft goods.

Designed by David W. Robb, director of electro-acoustic design at Jaffe Holden, the sound reinforcement systems for both halls is based on the left, right, center loudspeaker cluster system with over- and under-balcony boxes, subwoofers, and subfill. “I'd say our design goal and intent was to provide fully integrated audio and control systems with the flexibility required to support any type of programming short of high level rock-and-roll performances,” says Robb.

In Sarofim Hall, the system includes a 56-input Crest V12 mixer, feeding the three main ceiling clusters comprised of six EAW 695 cabinets, three EAW KF850s, and three EAW 300 series. The house delay system is composed of EAW JF80s and additional custom EAW cabinets split into five zones. The system is controlled by a BSS Soundweb digital controller that sets the parameters for the sound system signal delay and equalization. The communications system is a four-channel Clear-Com system, and stations can be installed wherever necessary. The Hobby Center has six wireless Clear-Com beltpacks.

Lights Up

Since the collaboration between Fisher Dachs Associates and the architects was so harmonious, the lighting positions are neatly integrated into the architecture of Sarofim Hall. “This was a deliberate attempt by FDA to enhance the client's and the architect's vision by not making the lighting paraphernalia obscure the beauty of the interior architecture,” says Campbell.

There are front-of-house coves above and around the back of the ceiling dome, as well as the traditional box boom positions. The lighting (and sound) control booths are located at the rear of the orchestra level, with a projection booth at the rear of the mezzanine. “There is enough power in each booth so that touring companies can bring in anything they require,” notes Campbell. “They can enhance the house system if need be. They can also plug into DMX/ethernet nodes placed throughout the auditorium, avoiding cable runs.”

Among the unusual features of Sarofim Hall are ample show control areas at the rear of the room where additional control systems can be used without taking away audience seating. One of these measures 400 sq. ft. (an important chunk of real estate in any theatre) and can be used for live sound control, show control, or additional control for automated lighting.

The hall can also be used for television broadcasts. With this in mind, cable troughs and pass-throughs were run to avoid unsightly cables. In addition, a tunnel extends from under the stage to the show control areas at the rear of the house and the control booth so that cable (and technicians) can run through the tunnel without being seen by the audience.

There is also a forestage grid that extends 30' beyond the proscenium arch into the auditorium and runs beyond the full 45' width of the proscenium opening. “This can be used for touring companies to hang additional trussing or flying chandeliers,” says Campbell, who adds that the grid is hidden above the ceiling. “Slots are integrated into the ceiling architecture for dedicated slots for rigging points,” he adds.

The in-house lighting systems, designed by Richard Hoyes of Fisher Dachs Associates, have ETC control and dimming in both Sarofim and Zilkha Hall. “Sarofim Hall is designed like a Broadway house but with integrated lighting positions,” says Hoyes. “All you see are the fixtures and not the support.”

The in-house system includes an ETC Obsession II 1,500-channel console and a Pathway Connectivity DMXPathfinder LR system with 16 inputs and 32 outputs. Fixtures include ETC Source Fours, Source Four Zooms and PARs, as well as Altman groundrows plus L&E cyclights and Mini-Strips. “There is enough equipment in-house in Sarofim Hall to run at least two shows in rotating repertory,” notes Hoyes. “And as a road house there is enough power for any touring system.”

Zilkha Hall, with its blond wood stage floor sprung for dance, has an in-house lighting system including an ETC Expression 3 console and Sensor dimmers, and a smaller inventory of ETC, Altman, and L&E fixtures. Combined, the two halls create a new performing-arts center that both home-grown and touring companies should be proud to call home.