The main auditorium of the Austin Independent School District’s performing arts center, in Austin, Texas, exhibits the form and craftsmanship of a violin or cello. With its elegant curves and rich material palette, the 1,200-seat venue, visible from the street through the glazed curtainwalls of the center’s lobby, appears as a precious object on display in a glass case.
Stepping inside the auditorium is like slipping into the body of the instrument. Nearly every exposed surface is wood, including the venue’s double-curved balcony and mirroring soffit overhead, both finished with a walnut veneer, as well as its curved walls, which are clad with ¼-inch-thick maple prefinished plywood—8,600 square feet in all. “When you think about musical instruments, wood is the first thing that comes to mind,” says Juan Miró, FAIA, founding principal of local firm Miró Rivera Architects, which designed the 60,000-square-foot center with Pfluger Architects, also in Austin.
And like a cello or violin instrument, whose form is driven by function, the design of the auditorium was driven by performance. Its swooping ceiling and angled walls serve an acoustical purpose, as does the wood itself. Even the geometry of the 60-foot-long, 19-foot-tall curved maple proscenium soffit—the venue’s showstopper—was informed by the orchestra shell, an off-the-shelf plastic laminate product from Wenger that reflects the sound out toward the audience during musical performances. In what might be seen as a reversal of the typical design process, the shell was specified first and the proscenium designed to mimic it, creating a seamless transition from the stage to the rest of the auditorium.
Hovering 30 feet above the stage, the proscenium soffit, which ties into the building’s steel structure and features integrated stage lighting, comprises metal-framed construction finished with vertically mounted maple 1x6s screwed to gypsum wall board, painted black. “That’s how you get that little bit of texture there,” says Pfluger Architects project architect and principal Jessica Molter, AIA. To create the soffit’s 18-foot-radius curve, Keystone Millwork, in Bryan, Texas, had to rout each 1x6 lengthwise. Two 1.75-inch-wide, 0.5-inch-deep gouges were cut in the back of the maple slats, like two wide tire tracks running the length of the wood. Keystone owner and president Bob Kraus says this sufficiently weakened the wood, allowing workers to bend it along the framed curve and secure it with glue and nails.
Molter says that the sloped concrete floor for the auditorium’s theater-style seating had the potential to create challenges during the proscenium’s construction and its future maintenance. Local contractor American Constructors erected scaffolding in order to complete the soffit and constructed the flanking curved walls from the top down, a process that took a little more than two months. To ease the replacement of lamps integrated into the proscenium ceiling, the architects ensured the light fixtures were accessible from the catwalk above.
Changing the acoustics of the space is even simpler. Heavy acoustical curtains hidden in pockets behind the balcony walls can be deployed with controls located backstage and in the sound booth, allowing the facility to serve all types of performances equally. The system's sophistication gives both Miró and Molter a great deal of satisfaction. “Seeing the culmination of all this work in a facility where all of the students who come and play all feel like it’s something special for them ... that’s one of the most rewarding things to me,” Molter says.
Yet the performing arts center affects more than just students; it is a symbol of the rejuvenation of Austin’s east side, which has languished for decades without municipal investment on the “other” side of Interstate 35, a physical and psychological barrier in the city. “For a long time, that was the line,” Miró says. “Before, it was more, ‘If I don’t live on the east side, I would never need to go there.’ The best thing that happened to the project is the site that was chosen.”