Architecture review: David Bury’s new Libbey Bowl


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If you were familiar with the experimental, risk-taking reputation of the Ojai Music Festival but didn’t know much about the town where it is held every June, you might assume that the festival’s rebuilt performance space, known as Libbey Bowl, would be a daring, attention-getting piece of architecture. You might picture a smaller, less expensive version of Frank Gehry’s Pritzker Pavilion in Chicago’s Millennium Park or Harry Teague’s open-air, fiberglass-clad Benedict Music Tent in Aspen, Colo.

If, on the other hand, you knew all about Ojai’s civic personality but not a lot about its music festival, you might imagine something far more traditional. Like Santa Barbara, its red-tile-roofed neighbor to the north, Ojai is the sort of place where new buildings are generally expected, if not compelled by design-review boards, to fit in seamlessly with the old ones -- and with the natural landscape around them.


The new Libbey Bowl, designed by Ojai architect David Bury and completed in time for this year’s festival, which begins Thursday, is a good deal closer to the second category than the first. If not quite a nostalgic piece of architecture, it aims largely to re-create the look of the old bowl, where the music festival made its first appearance in 1952 and which despite significant repair work in recent years had slid into a charming sort of disrepair.

The contrast between the festival’s iconoclastic musical history and the restrained look of its $4-million new home flows more from practical than aesthetic concerns. The festival uses the band shell for just a handful of days each year; the rest of the time the facility, which sits in a city-owned park, is used by a diverse range of groups, including the casts of high school musicals and various pop musicians on tour.

There is also the question of money: The music festival was responsible for the bulk of the fundraising for the new facility, and it began its campaign just as the U.S. was falling into recession in 2008. There is an economy and efficiency to Bury’s approach that clearly appealed to both the music festival and the city.

Still, the design of the new bowl raises a couple of fascinating -- and in the end probably unanswerable -- questions about the relative character of architecture and music. Because music in performance is ephemeral and architecture is permanent and immovable, is it easier to build a public constituency for a risk-taking music festival than for an experimental building? Is challenging music somehow less threatening than challenging architecture? Those questions aside, the new Libbey Bowl is in every functional sense a major upgrade. Wooden, splinter-giving benches have been replaced with 26 rows of dark green plastic seats. The stage and the clamshell-style band shell arcing over it have been raised by 6 feet and turned a few significant degrees to the west, away from the nearby tennis courts.

The band shell’s rotting wooden beams have been replaced with steel, and backstage facilities have finally been brought up to date. The sightlines are much better -- though the price to pay for those better views of the stage has been the loss of a couple of trees that once rose from between the benches. (New trees have been planted instead on the periphery of the bowl, so that on balance more trees have been added than taken out.) I will leave the final acoustical analysis to my colleague Mark Swed, The Times’ music critic, but every indication is that the sound will be improved as well.

Bury’s charge was essentially to keep that long list of changes as inconspicuous as possible. (Where the design is most faithful to the old bowl is around the stage area, where to the naked eye the rebuilt band shell is nearly indistinguishable from the old one; the backstage facilities are more utilitarian and contemporary but also mostly hidden from public view.) His success in doing so makes the new Libbey Bowl a classical-music version of a retro baseball stadium, where spacious suites and modern facilities are cloaked in a layer of familiar architectural form. The plastic seats, which might have been ripped right out of AT&T Park in San Francisco and brought south, only strengthen the comparison.


Surprisingly enough, the music festival came close several years ago to building a much more outwardly modern home. Ernest Fleischmann, who became artistic director at the Ojai Music Festival after retiring from the Los Angeles Philharmonic, commissioned a design for a new Libbey Bowl from the New York firm Hanrahan Meyers in 1999.

Its proposal called for a tube-shaped facility sheathed in translucent fiberglass panels and designed to snake around a couple of existing trees. The acoustician was Nagata, the Japanese firm that also worked on Walt Disney Concert Hall.

While hardly radical, the crisply contemporary design did not go over well in Ojai; it was seen in some quarters as a vanity project for Fleischmann and the festival. Eventually, for financial as well as political reasons, the plan was abandoned. This time around, the festival and the city agreed that Bury, an architect with a long track record of public and restoration projects in Ojai and also a former two-term mayor of the city, would be a better choice.

Generally speaking, the architecture of classical-music venues reflects the spirit of the cities in which they are built as much as -- if not more than -- the personalities of their resident orchestras. Gehry’s recent halls for Miami (the New World Center) and Los Angeles (Walt Disney Concert Hall) certainly wouldn’t have been built if not for the vision of music directors like Michael Tilson Thomas and executives like Fleischmann and Deborah Borda.

But those halls also say something about the contemporary personality of Miami Beach and Southern California. Nashville’s Schermerhorn Symphony Center by contrast is a well-behaved neoclassical design by David M. Schwarz Architects.

Risk-taking architecture for classical music, it seems fair to say, works best when both the resident symphonies and the host cities are open to the idea of leaving the past firmly behind. When there is a gulf between musical and civic values -- as arguably there is in Ojai -- the civic ones usually win out.



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-- Christopher Hawthorne