New World Symphony: Gehry Piles It Up
Yes, the new home of the New World Symphony in Miami Beach is a terrific building, and yes, it is unusually calm in appearance for the work of Frank Gehry, at least if you think of him only as the designer who in the last two decades conducted his building to flail wildly, as he indicated with his arms during a panel celebrating the building’s opening. It is easy to forget that these forms—which came out of his interest in the expressive possibilities of form, but also out of his desire to take apart the monolithic appearance of most civic buildings—came relatively late in his career. It also important to realize that a good architect, even one for whom the forms that made him famous are so recognizable, reacts to a given situation, budget, and context.
So the New World Symphony Building, which Gehry designed for his longtime friend Michael Tilson Thomas, who started the symphony as a way to give students a chance to play at the highest level and prepare for a career of performance, is a box that takes its place among the stucco volumes that fill up the glamorous sandbar we call Miami Beach. We usually think of those buildings as Art Deco masterpieces, and so many (but by no means all) of them are, but that style in particular was no more and no less than a streamlining of functional boxes. It achieved that an effect, as often as not, purely through the application of finials, colored stripes, and a few curved windows.
So this building is a box festooned with a few gestures: a scrim that shades the main lobby area, revealing the stack of secondary performance spaces that occupy this void; a few eccentric boxes peeking out the top; and a cowl shading the window on the building’s north side that lets light into the main concert hall. The rest is just white stucco.
Photo by author.
Inside, the volumes pile up under skylights, leaving a staircase and balconies to wind their way through this collection that is really at the heart of the what the symphony does, up to the offices on the top floor. The detailing is so simple as to be nondescript, which allows you to notice all the more how well-done the plastering is. Curves and double curves meet rotated cubes with nary a dimple or deviation from the straight and the smooth.
Photo by author.
The hall is equally simple. It is an abstraction of L.A.’s Disney Hall, at less than one-third the size, and the acoustics (by the same acoustician, Yasuhisa Toyota of Nagata Acoustics) are almost as good. Here, also, the hall comes apart into different leaves and layers for both audience and performers, breaking down the usual distinction between the sea of upturned spaces and the isolated orchestra. Only the hideous fabric on the chairs here takes away from the manner in which this edits out both preconceptions and distractions from the central experience of listening collectively to music.
Photo by author.
The New World Symphony building frames three experiences. First, there is that act of absorbing sound. Second, there is the coming together of students with each other, their teachers, and their audience, which occurs in the many practice rooms, rehearsal spaces, and especially in the nooks and crannies Gehry developed throughout the structure. Third, the building is a meeting place for audience, students, and teachers, and for all three of those with the urban surroundings. The symphony extended that sense by turning the new park in front of the building, designed by Adriaan Geuze of West 8, into a place where you can hear piped-in sounds from inside the hall. Projections, both inside the hall and on the exterior facade, will bring a larger world together with the ephemeral sounds produced there. This is all the building does, and it does just enough to accomplish that aim. It had to be more than a box, and less than a civic icon. It had to create complexity and chances for encounter, without overwhelming you. It had to fit into its settings and draw you from there into its realm. It does this, and does it with grace, ease, and beauty.
One last note, which I raised at a panel discussion, in which I was joined by Reed Kroloff, Richard Florida, and Marilyn Taylor: It is wonderful that Miami Beach has such a wonderful new cultural artifact, which joins a rather less successful new symphony hall and opera hall across the bay, as well as the future Herzog & de Meuron-designed Miami Art Museum that will rise near those piles. It solidified Miami Beach’s transformation into an intense node in the culture industry, capturing the energy of the hotels, the nightlife, and the annual Art Basel art fair. I will write next about the nearby parking garage that truly celebrates all this in an innovative manner. What is needed now is for all this energy to somehow inform the endless square miles of ugly, environmentally wasteful, socially dysfunctional, and economically challenged sprawl that make up the meat of Miami as it spreads into the swamps. If the New World Symphony and other such cultural artifacts are really going to have an effect, they need to spawn satellites or effects in sprawl.