Those accustomed to architect Frank Gehry's signature swooping titanium forms might feel that the New World Symphony concert hall hits a low note; Walt Disney Concert Hall it is not. Instead, its boxy form and white stucco exterior reflect the traditional Art Deco architecture of Miami Beach. Located at Washington Avenue and 17th Street, just blocks from both the bustle of Lincoln Road and the beach, the $160 million building measures 100,641 sq. ft. and faces a new 2.5-acre urban park, situated on the site of a former parking lot. Looks can be deceptive; this stucco box contains a few surprises.
The New World Symphony is not home to a professional orchestra; rather it is an educational facility that prepares talented young musicians for leadership positions within orchestras. It is directed by Michael Tilson Thomas, whom Gehry actually babysat many years ago while growing up in Los Angeles. The two connected again with the aim of bringing classical music to a younger audience, blurring boundaries between performer and the public. Near the entry, an 80' high curtain wall allows a glimpse into the lobby of the building and the artistic life within. The six-story atrium is with filled with Gehry’s signature stacked and crumpled forms, which house rehearsal rooms, classrooms, and offices and which are linked by a stair. The atrium is capped by a blue titanium canopy covering the concessions bar, as well as a roof garden shaded by green canopies, designed by landscape architect Raymond Jungles. This outdoor space serves as the backdrop for performances and educational events.
The centerpiece of the building is a 756-seat hall, which Gehry designed with the audience’s experience in mind. The space showcases five acoustical "sails," billowing forms made of acoustical plaster that serve the dual function of reflecting and absorbing sound as well as providing screens to display video art pieces as a visual accompaniment to the orchestra’s performances. Gehry’s commitment to state-of the-art technology is also evident in the sophisticated control booth located at the back of the hall. Despite these high-tech gestures, the hall is actually an intimate performance space: ocean-blue seats snugly wrap the stage, and no audience member sits more than 13 rows away from the musicians.
Anchoring the west side of the site is a 550-car garage also designed by Gehry Partners, comprised of a concrete structure enclosed by a metal screen and connected to the New World Symphony via pedestrian bridge. However, the true urban gesture of the project is found in the undulating topography of the Miami Beach Soundscape, the park that the building faces, which was designed by Netherlands-based West 8 architects. Cloud-like painted aluminum pergolas embrace the edges; bougainvillea planted on these create shade and add an enticing pop of color.. Pathways weave through in a mosaic pattern and incorporate seating.
“I think the whole thing pulled together brilliantly—it’s one of the most exciting parks I’ve been in.” — William Cary, Assistant Director, Miami Beach Planning Department
A 7,000 sq. ft. portion of Gehry’s stucco facade was intentionally left blank – the “Wallcast" is a projection surface that is activated at night with images from films and live feeds of concerts, and viewers gather with lawn chairs and blankets in the park. The designers faced the challenge of how to discreetly house the projection equipment within the park, including four synchronized units mounted 20' above grade level. West 8’s solution was to conceal the projectors within more groupings of the pergola structures, so that they become just another sculptural element within the park.
In choosing vegetation for the site, the designers worked with the city manager and the director of Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden to chose trees that could withstand hurricane force winds but still fit naturally in the environment. They also wanted to stick with species that did not obscure the view of Gehry’s building but which would create a veil of landscaping. West 8 selected three different types of Veitchia palms at varying heights, and they located each and every tree by hand, creating “an undulating ground-pattern with a mosaic overlap that is reflective of the shapes ... of Gehry’s crumbled objects inside the atrium,” explains William Cary, Assistant Director, Miami Beach Planning Department. He adds, “I think the whole thing pulled together brilliantly – it’s one of the most exciting parks I’ve been in.”
While the design of the New World Symphony might underwhelm, at least you can pull up a plastic chair and enjoy the view.
A special thanks to Robin Hill for some of the great photography of the architecture of Miami featured in this article. See more of his work at www.robinhill.net.
Murrye is a freelance writer based in New York City. She holds a Bachelor's degree in Architecture from the University of Arkansas and is a LEED-accredited professional. Her work has been published in Architectural Record, Eco-Structure, and Architectural Lighting, among others. She also serves as a contributing editor for the American Institute of Architects' New York Chapter publication, eOculus.Website: www.murrye.com