Walls That Glow And Improved Technical Systems Define The New Alice Tully Hall
An icon of New York City’s cultural scene, the 1,100-seat Alice Tully Hall is a cornerstone of Manhattan’s major performing arts complex. Built in 1969, its recent renovation is part of a large-scale rethinking of the entire Lincoln Center campus, with the design work led by Diller Scofidio + Renfro architects. The opening week of festivities began on Sunday, February 22 and the music critics are happy with the new acoustics, and acoustician Mark Holden of JaffeHolden is floating on air. In fact, The New York Times titled its article: “At Last, Heavenly Acoustics Are Heard in the Hall.”
“We wanted to give Alice Tully Hall and the Juilliard School a better presence on the street and break down the hard barriers. Open walls now provide a better interface with city,” says Liz Diller, principal at Diller Scofidio + Renfro, who collaborated with FXFOWLE Architects on Tully. The footprint of the building has been stretched toward Broadway to echo the shape of its site, creating a larger lobby area with glass walls that lighten both the original design by architect Pietro Belluschi and the travertine marble façades that define Lincoln Center.
“We wanted to make the hall more intimate, both in terms of visual and acoustic intimacy,” notes Diller. “This hall is the workhorse of Lincoln Center. It has to do everything, but in the past, it did everything pretty well and nothing perfectly well. We wanted to make it a great concert hall.” One of the design approaches to achieve this intimacy was to visually connect the stage area with the auditorium by paneling the hall with a continuous skin of moabi, a warm, rusty-orange African wood. “It is the opposite of a proscenium,” Diller points out. “We congealed the stage and the house.”
The extremely thin moabi veneers (taken from one single log) are attached to a composite substrate. “There are areas you can’t see,” notes Diller, “where the substrate is resin. When the wood is surface-lit, it all looks the same. When illuminated from behind, the walls glow like a human blush. There are no harsh edges anywhere; there is a very organic feeling.” The individually-addressed Philips Solid-State Lighting Solutions/Color Kinetics RGB LED fixtures are tucked into the shallow cavity behind the walls that are part of the acoustic treatment.
“The use of the lighting is timed with the shows,” Diller says. “As the audience turns from murmur to attention, when the house lights go to an inner glow on the walls, they then transition to show lighting. It’s a complicated thing to make happen.”
In contrast with the warm wood, the custom seats by Poltrona Frau are covered in dark gray suede for a contemporary look in the interior, which has been reshaped to reflect its original, unobstructed style, with a fin running down each side under the balcony seating to echo the fins found on late ‘60s cars. “Everything was shaped to help control the sound,” says Diller. “All materials—wood, resin, and fabric on the seats—were acoustically tested to be just right. We worked closely with the acousticians and theatre consultants to create a new state-of-the-art theatre for the 21st century. It was a dream collaboration.”
RETHINKING THE HALL
“Our charge was to renew the room,” says Josh Dachs, principal at Fisher Dachs Associates, the theatre consultants for the project, who got involved over five years ago and took the lead on the renewal of the technology systems. “The architects stripped the old surfaces off the walls, and we stripped off all the old technology.” Rigging, lighting, acoustic treatment, support spaces (including new dressing rooms with ADA access), and new seating were all part of the program. “We considered the possibility of adding aisles but kept the hall’s traditional continental seating in the layout people were accustomed to,” explains Dachs. “We did remove the small railings that existed and re-spaced the rows, but in terms of sightlines, very little had to be done to the topology of the floor.”
In addition to serving as a concert hall, Alice Tully is also home to the Film Society of Lincoln Center. Improvements were made to the projection equipment; a new, fully motorized screen has been installed, and the surround-sound speakers pivot from the walls. “This saves an enormous amount of time and effort for the stagehands,” notes Dachs. “The Film Society is ecstatic.”
“It wasn’t a bad hall at all,” says lead acoustician Mark Holden, whose firm, JaffeHolden, served as acousticians for the renovation. “We wanted to improve it as much as possible. The basic bones didn’t change; they didn’t need to. It was more changes in shaping and angles to create a space that is bright, live, and resonate, where classical music sounds good. But it is also a very flexible space where the Film Society of Lincoln Center shows films with 5.0 surround sound, so the room needs to adjust acoustically.”
Adjustable acoustic towers can be used in various configurations on stage, pivoting as needed to reveal a reflective hardwood surface for classical music or a surface of black absorptive material (with 2" thick fiberglass panels) for film. Four acoustic reflectors hung over the stage can be adjusted in terms of height and angle as desired (there is no fly tower above the stage since the theatre is tucked underneath Juilliard).
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In addition, a series of 18 variable-length, black wool acouStac™ acoustic banners by Pook Diemont Ohl (PDO) can be used on the side walls to add extra tuning to the room. When not in use, the banners disappear into narrow slots overhead. “By reducing the amplitude of the reflected sound, the vibrant reflective space created by exposed wall surfaces and desired by the orchestra is transformed into an environment for speech and reinforced sound. Traveling at 100/fpm to match the house light cues, the cascading acouStacs are an integral aspect of the hall,” explains Barbara Pook, principal at PDO, who worked on the Alice Tully Hall project with partner Tony Diemont. “To complement the visual aesthetic of the auditorium acouStacs, the motorized house curtain is a monolithic acouStac 54' wide and 35' tall—the largest acouStac built to date. Despite its size, the acouStac compresses into a compact shape nestled between motorized rigging sets.”
One of Holden’s major considerations was subway noise and vibration, not so much an issue in the old hall, but once the new one was brought closer to Broadway and the MTA subway system, it was a concern, especially as the HVAC systems are now much quieter than in the past. “Budget limitations forced us to not treat every wall, ceiling, and floor, but to focus subway mitigation only on those surfaces that would actually contribute to audible rumble,” says Holden. “By measuring every surface in the hall—with assistance of Acentec—we found the four or five worst offenders and treated those only, eliminating many complex and costly treatments. For example, the stage floor and audience floor were the most active when subways rolled by, and they were treated with floating concrete slabs. The balcony floor and ceilings were determined to have minimal subway noise contribution, and costly treatment of these surfaces was deleted. Yes, we double- and triple-checked that one!”
Subway isolation of the wood sidewalls was a huge challenge for the acousticians. “They are a combination of wood-veneered composite MDF 1½"-thick, and 1"-thick resin panels with embedded wood veneer. The mounting of the resin backlit panels so that no steel structure shadows would be telegraphed to the surface was critical to both the lighting designer and architects,” notes Holden. “We developed a pin mounting system that had minimal connection points from resin panel to steel support structure yet met the acoustic criteria for minimum panel sound absorption.”
To test this, the acousticians built mock-ups in an acoustic testing lab and ran sound tests. “The entire assembly was then mounted resiliently using neoprene isolators back to the concrete structure,” Holden explains. After demolition, we found an existing block wall that would need to remain between the new assembly and concrete structure. This block wall, we found, was sympathetically vibrating with the subway tracks, and we recommended its removal. However the cost of removing the tall block wall was excessive, so we engineered a solution that left the wall in place and mounted the wood/resin wall assembly through holes drilled in the block to the massive concrete structure behind. The hangers could not touch the noisy block wall, or the new wood walls would re-radiate subway noise. We sealed in the old block wall behind the new wood/resin panels, rendering it mute.”
In partnership with the MTA, the express tracks 1,000' on each on side of the Lincoln Center subway stop were mounted on movement-dampening rubber pads designed to limit the vibration of the rumbling trains into the hall and stage. “This treatment, in conjunction with the isolated floors, pivot walls, and wood sidewalls, renders the subway rumble inaudible,” says Holden. “Musicians commented that this is the only hall in New York City that does not suffer from either subway or air noise ills.”
Dave LaDue of JaffeHolden designed the sound reinforcement system, featuring EAW loudspeakers for the main and side clusters, and a Midas Heritage 2000 56-channel console. “The biggest challenge with the sound system design was coming up with a solution that would allow the speakers to be placed on the stage for a ground-stack configuration and also work for a flown configuration,” he says. “To achieve that, custom rigging/framing was designed to allow both scenarios with minimal change over time. While there are many line array systems that would be easily ground-stacked and flown, the dispersion pattern of a line array was not appropriate with the shoebox shape of the hall. The EAW AX speakers were selected as their pattern and power handling were more appropriate for this space. The ground-stack configuration will be the most utilized, partly due to the union call time required to fly the loudspeakers. Because there are three stage configurations, the groundstack framing is on wheels, allowing the speakers to be placed as needed.” A series of EAW MK series loudspeakers are distributed throughout the hall behind acoustically transparent panels. These speakers are used for acoustic events when the main sound system is not deployed.
New stage lifts by Gala, chair wagons by PDO, rigging by JR Clancy, and CM Lodestar motors with Skjonberg controls are also part of the new technical package. The lifts can extend the stage 30' so it is large enough for a full symphony orchestra (reducing the seating from roughly 1,100 to 800). “Another significant change to the hall is the replacement of the few old counterweight sets with a completely packed array of 15 motorized stage rigging sets, the four acoustic reflectors, a motorized projection screen masking system, and chain motor system,” says Pook. “The original single stage lift was expanded to two stage lifts with refurbished chair wagons. The stage equipment control system operates the overhead stage rigging, projection screen masking system, stage lifts, and the acouStacs. The structural reinforcement required to support the increased stage rigging and stage lift loads, along with the new MEP systems, created enormous space constraints within the confines of the existing building. The stage house is a jigsaw puzzle.”
The new lighting system—with an Electronic Theatre Controls (ETC) Net3 Ethernet backbone and Eos console, Unison architectural control system, AMX interface, two new ETC Sensor+ dimmer racks (and the updating of two existing Sensor racks to CEM+), relay panel, and 16 company switches— was provided by PRG. Geller Electric served as the electrical contractor, with Encore Lighting supplying the Philips/ Color Kinetics iColor Cove MX Powercore and ColorGraze Powercore LED fixtures that provide the blush on the walls. “This was the most complicated house light programming I’ve ever done with the ETC Unison system for the LEDs. We can do presets on the Eos and send snapshots to the Unison,” says PRG senior project manager Rob Tooker.
Barbizon Lighting (Tom Luczak, project manager) also provided a fixture package featuring ETC Source Fours, 15 Vari-Lite VL500Ds, two Vari-Lite VL1000s, and two Robert Juliat Victor 1800W followspots.
Even before its opening week ceremonies took place, the new architecture and acoustics for Alice Tully Hall began to garner accolades in the press, a harbinger of great things to come from this multipurpose venue that has set a high standard for the revitalization of Lincoln Center.
Gear lists and additional information about the renovation of Alice Tully Hall can be found at www.livedesignonline.com.