Acoustic design for large performance spaces has come a long way. Concert halls and opera houses are being planned or built in Orlando, Las Vegas (really!), Kansas City, and Midland, TX, as well as in China, India, and the relatively stable parts of the Middle East. But will they sound substantially better than halls built 100 years ago? Of course, safety and air systems have improved. And the US has learned the lessons of “potty parity” — new halls are doubling the numbers of ladies' facilities over men's and adding many more than code minimum. (I have often remarked that going to a concert will be a failure acoustically, no matter how fabulous the hall, if the audience can't park and can't use the facilities in a timely fashion).
But why is it that some new halls' acoustics fail to reach the expectations of the critics, audiences, and performers, in spite of hiring the best designers and spending millions on design and construction? We have years of experience and advanced computer modeling systems that allow the ability to predict a new hall's performance before it is built and, yet, there continue to be — albeit only a few — noteworthy major halls that just don't meet acoustic expectations.
My theory is that, while the science of sound is quite well understood, the successful design of these halls requires more than raw facts and years of experience. It requires that the design team work in total collaboration and partnership. The value of relationships must be fostered and nurtured. I believe that relationships have a direct correlation to the outcome of the design and the acoustics. A team that does not work well together and can't communicate on the highest level of partnership and trust is a setup for a sub-standard project.
The first reason may seem obvious, but under deeper scrutiny, the reason for failure is more subtle and complex. While well intentioned and altruistic to a fault, those that fund the construction costs of a new hall often have very high goals and expectations of the hall beyond acoustics alone. While sound is important, many new performance halls stand as an icon representing the city's sophistication and the maturity of the community to the rest of the country and possibly to the world. This frequently becomes of paramount importance to donors. When this happens, the icon itself may become more important than the function it performs, driving decisions to compromise the acoustics and cladding expensive exteriors.
Compromises to the acoustic quality sneak up on the design team often in tiny, hard to determine ways. For example, wall materials might be made less expensive by other designers and contractors, seat upholstery might get upgraded without the acoustician's review, or air systems can be made inadvertently noisier by the desire to make them more green and energy-efficient.
The compromises that can make the difference between a successful hall and a mediocre one occur when the design and construction team are working in total collaboration and partnership. When the team is functioning on a high communication level, there is trust between the members that allows free exchange of ideas and suggestions for enhancements without fear of retribution, criticism, or ridicule. Because every material, trade, and structure affects the acoustics of a hall, it is necessary for the acoustician to be involved in every design decision. It is, in turn, imperative for the acoustician to be an asset to the communication flow and compromising process resulting in sound decisions.
Performance hall design is considered by many knowledgeable people to be the most complex design, next to actually building it on time and on budget! Contractors who have built nuclear and military research labs agree that concert halls, theatres, and multiuse halls are, by far, the most difficult and complex projects. For example, any slight changes to fix a sight line issue may affect the acoustics, structure, mechanical, theatrical, and code compliance in numerous unintended ways. This ripple effect where one move affects a half dozen other disciplines is what renders it so challenging, and in turn, so fascinating.
Ego — you must have strong self-confidence or risk cowering in the corner during design meetings. However, an exaggerated ego can shut down the collaboration that is necessary for great buildings and great acoustics. Acousticians who are excellent communicators and listeners can play a significant role here, communicating the same message in slightly different ways and offering reasons for the recommendations. Fear of losing control is another factor that can halt free and open communication of ideas (“my way or the highway” does not make for great collaboration). The stakes are very high. Reputations and prestige are on the line, as are millions of dollars. In the process of holding on too tightly and micromanaging, a project can easily go off track. Trusting in each other's abilities and skills encourages respect. Respect and trust come quicker when the team has a history of working on projects together.
While the science of sound in halls is quite well understood, the successful design of performance halls requires the more subtle art of a team working in total collaboration. Relationships strongly affect the acoustical outcome.