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Foil to nature.

Frank Gehry's first building on a rural site is a model performance complex clad in swishing, sensuous steel drapery that animates its Arcadian campus setting.

The Hudson River enjoys mythical status as the boundary between New York City and the rest of the republic, as the first of the mighty American streams that the European settlers had to ford, and, most of all, for the eponymous school of nineteenth-century landscape painters. When Frank Gehry first proposed his steel-wrapped performing arts centre for a site near those sacred banks where legendary artists once sketched, it provoked an outcry and charges of desecration. Luckily, Bard College has a 540-acre campus, and was able to offer a more spacious site, equally pastoral but free from entangling associations. Named after college trustee and benefactor Richard B. Fisher, it is Gehry's first institutional building to occupy a rural setting, and initially it's a shock to see forms and materials more usually associated with the gritty streets of Cleveland and Los Angeles climbing a grassy slope and screened by trees. And yet the steel seems entirely at home in this landscape, changing colour through the day, mirroring shifts of light, and serving as a foil to bare branches or lush greenery.

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Located 90 miles north of New York City, Bard College has evolved from a nineteenth-century Episcopalian foundation into a prestigious liberal arts university. Leo Botstein, Bard's president, who also conducts the American Symphony Orchestra, wanted a symbol of the college's commitment to the arts that would also provide an ideal performance space for the summer music festival and for leading soloists and ensembles year-round. The original plan was to augment the existing performing arts department. When the project was relocated and the adjacencies were lost, the programme expanded from 6000 square metres to 10 760, incorporating large rehearsal rooms for drama and dance, and a fully equipped black-box theatre seating up to 250, in addition to the 930-seat Sosnoff Theater.

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Like Walt Disney Concert Hall, the complex was designed from the inside out, with the main performance space as the overriding priority. The challenge--here, as in California--was to tie together a cluster of boxy volumes and give them an appropriately theatrical expression. Disney doubles as a civic monument, that should--like the Guggenheim, or the Sydney Opera House--become a symbol of the city, and its sleek curved planes of stainless steel are folded and composed with the mastery of a vintage Balenciaga gown. Fisher aspires to greatness as a performance space, but it forms part of a college campus and its bias-cut steel is draped as loosely, and cut away as daringly as a Yohji Yamamoto dress. As you ascend the path to the main entrance, the angled plates of brushed stainless steel swirl and flow like flying skirts on a runway, concealing and revealing the concrete and plaster volumes below, flaring up to form an entry canopy and subsiding to wrap the front of house. Gehry describes this canopy as a covered porch where people can gather outdoors on a fine evening in mounting anticipation of what is to come. To the rear, the boxy volumes are exposed, in a literal expression of backstage.

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Diehard Modernists may object to this disconnection between skin and body, front and back, seeing it as a subversive attempt to reintroduce surface ornament on rational structures, but in the Fisher there is no deception. The carapace is as airborne and dynamic as a dancer on stage, and the supporting trusses and braces are fully revealed beneath the canopy and within the three-level lobby with its steel-framed stairs and stacked concourses. Natural light flows in from tall side windows and openings between the steel wrappers. Bard stands for freedom of expression--the opening gala was briefly interrupted by a ragtag bunch of student protestors and one nude woman bearing a sign 'Drop Tuition Not Foil'--and the Center captures that anarchic spirit.

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The Sosnoff auditorium is designed for performances of orchestral music, opera, dance, and drama. 'Multipurpose rooms are difficult to make,' says Gehry, and many architects and acousticians have failed to achieve a good balance between the competing demands of orchestral

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[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED] music and the spoken word. Disney Hall has only to satisfy the first of those roles, and Yasuhisa Toyota, the acoustician who collaborated with Gehry on both projects, made his reputation on single-purpose concert halls in his native Japan. He emerged beaming at the clarity of sound after the opening-night performance of Mahler's grandiose Third Symphony, but the real test is yet to come. As project designer Craig Webb points out, you need a large volume and a high ceiling for symphonies, and a lower ceiling and shorter reverberation times to preserve the clarity of speech. In Sosnoff, the side walls of the hexagonal auditorium are slightly bowed, and the acid-washed concrete is overlaid with spaghetti loops of fir battens to diffuse sound. The billowing ceiling of Douglas fir rises to a peak at the centre but is pulled down at front and back. Angled side balconies at both upper levels, and a low divide within the main tier of seating, provide additional sound reflectors. A wooden acoustic shell, comprising eight side towers that are as dense and reverberant as concrete, and suspended ceiling panels that are stored in the flies, can be assembled on stage to enhance orchestral sound for audience and musicians. Lifts allow the stage to be reconfigured for different uses, and acoustic banners can be extended to dampen reverberations.

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The black box also has a scenery tower, a lofty volume and sophisticated lighting, and it can be reconfigured more radically, with movable seats or bleachers grouped around different types of stage. The two principal rehearsal rooms are naturally lit from windows that frame the landscape or can be blacked out when stage lighting is required.

'We had to decide how much architecture to put into the interiors,' says Webb. 'It's a size and type of theatre we haven't done before, and we decided to make the big statements in the canopy and lobby, and keep the rooms somewhat quiet. In both theatres, the focus is on the performers and the stage.' That concern extended to the structure itself. As Yasuhisa Toyota notes, the steel was elevated on supports above the subroofing layer and insulated with neoprene to muffle the sound of raindrops falling on the roof. Despite the frugality of the finishes, the pursuit of functional excellence and professional equipment pushed the cost of the project up to $62 million. MICHAEL WEBB

PERFORMING ARTS CENTRE,

ANNANDALE-ON-HUDSON,

NEW YORK, USA

ARCHITECT

GEHRY PARTNERS

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Architect

Gehry Partners, Los Angeles

Structural engineer

DeSimone Consulting Engineer

Services engineer

Cosentini Associates

Acoustic design

Nagata Acoustics with Robert F. Mahoney & Associates

Theatre design

Theatre Projects Consultants

Photographs

Peter Aaron/Esto

CONTEMPORARY ART MUSEUM,

CINCINNATI, USA

ARCHITECT

ZAHA HADID

The CAC conducted lengthy public discussions on how architecture could best express its mission, and drew up a detailed programme, before narrowing the choice from 97 contenders to three. Daniel Libeskind and Bernard Tschumi presented designs that indicated a determination to go their own ways; Hadid was selected for her openness to dialogue and the relevance of her ideas. 'How can you begin to release the site from the requirements of the box?' she asked the committee. 'All American cities are about the grid. This needs a forceful subtlety--breaking the grid but not necessarily in a vulgar way.' Unpredictability was part of the mandate. 'Neutral space is a wishful oxymoron,' she declared.

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'All space is coloured by individual memory and experience. We propose that the new Center should reflect the variety of contemporary art in the way the building articulates its settings and spaces ... multiple perceptions and distant views should create a richer, more perplexing experience, taking your body through a journey of compression, release, and reflection.'

These concepts are brilliantly realized in the completed building, which occupies a corner site across from Cesar Pelli's Aronoff Center for the Arts. The keynote is, as Hadid anticipated, 'forceful subtlety'. On the long, south facade, galleries are expressed as stacked bars of concrete and blackened aluminium, bracketing the blue-tinted band of windows that light two levels of staff offices, and projecting out to the east as a windowless, geometric relief. The black metal absorbs light while the pale concrete reflects it, adding depth to the facades. This boldly articulated mass appears to float above the recessed glazing that wraps the open ground floor. The concrete pavement, lit with fibre-optic channels, extends through the glass and curves up at the rear of the building to establish a connection between the street and the galleries--a feature Hadid calls the 'Urban Carpet'. Silhouetted against the poured concrete wall are skylit staircases with polished aluminium treads and lighted handrails that are contained within black steel box beams, forming shallow Xs as austere and assertive as anything by Donald Judd.

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Hadid has put 8700 square metres of usable space on an 1100-square-metre site, but the interiors have an amplitude that belies the physical constraints. She describes the open-plan, split-level lobby as an indoor park, drawing in passers-by to use the sales area and cafe, attend a reception or descend to a performance in the basement black box. It's a gift to the city that reinforces the CAC's bid for a broader audience. Cuts in the floor provide visual links between the two levels, and the galleries seem to defy gravity, hovering within this lofty, luminous volume. Hadid likens this illusion to the rock suspended in mid-air in the painting by Rene Magritte. Galleries occupy most of the second, fourth and fifth floors; the sixth is a children's educational area called the 'Un-Museum' and will be used for interactive exhibits. Balconies open onto the skylit void to the rear, allowing visitors to look down and across, and to enjoy the same sense of connectedness they share on the spiral ramp of the New York Guggenheim. However, in contrast to the relentless unwinding of that glorious vortex, which can be encompassed from a single vantage point, the CAC is a voyage of discovery.

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Desmarais expressed a wish for 'a spatial and formal experience that is dynamic rather than merely useful: that announces to all who enter that this is a place for experiment, a place to leave behind assumptions and conventions, a place that lays us open to the surprises and challenges that are necessarily presented by new art'. Hadid has come through for her client. The constant alternation of enclosure and void, the shifts of angle and level, the cutaways that reveal unexpected vistas, and the openings in the fifth-floor members room that reconnect you with the city, all contribute to a feeling of exhilaration few art museums can match. The varied spaces will challenge artists and curators to respond to them, as much as their work will test visitors' appetites.

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Architect

Zaha Hadid Architects, London

Project architect

Markus Dochantschi

Associated architect

KZF Design

Structural engineer

THP

Photographs

John E. Linden

CONTEMPORARY ART MUSEUM,

CINCINNATI, USA

ARCHITECT

ZAHA HADID
COPYRIGHT 2003 EMAP Architecture
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:art centers
Publication:The Architectural Review
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jul 1, 2003
Words:1868
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