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Entertainment & Arts

Architecture review: Frank Gehry’s New World Center in Miami Beach

From nearly every exterior angle — as approached from the beach, which is just a few blocks from its front door, or from the boutiques and gelaterias on nearby Lincoln Road — Frank Gehry’s building for the New World Symphony looks surprisingly nondescript. Wrapped in glass and white plaster, the six-story concert hall has a boxy profile to go with a rather unassuming architectural personality.

But the building’s outward simplicity — miles from the shimmering metal skins of Walt Disney Concert Hall or the Guggenheim Bilbao — turns out to be deceptive. Its soaring sky-lit atrium is filled with a jumble of the architect’s familiar sculptural forms. Another collection of his daring shapes awaits inside the auditorium.

Throughout the $160-million concert hall, set to open officially Tuesday evening, the interplay between rectangular containers and their virtuosic architectural contents gives the design a shifting, unpredictable vitality. This is a piece of architecture that dares you to underestimate it or write it off at first glance. In the middle of Miami Beach, a city that, like certain parts of Los Angeles, has nearly perfected the art of aggressive displays of individual beauty — pneumatic, Botoxed, dyed and otherwise — it is content to focus on the richness of its interior life.

Even the white walls that lend a straightforward look to the facility, known officially as the New World Center, have a significant programming role to play. Both inside the auditorium and on the front of the concert hall, facing a new park designed by the Dutch landscape architecture firm West 8, they double as screens that will show a variety of video images.

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This week the symphony will pair Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition” with video sequences, projected on the walls behind the orchestra, created by students and faculty at USC’s School of Cinematic Arts. At least twice every month it will beam the live feed of a concert, accompanied by sound, onto the building’s parkside facade, an event New World officials call a “wallcast.”

Gehry included similar elements in his original designs for Disney Hall, but they were never built. In Miami they reflect the interests of Michael Tilson Thomas, New World’s artistic director, and the young age of its musicians. New World is officially not a professional orchestra but a training program: It recruits graduates from leading conservatories and brings them to Miami for three-year fellowships. Most of them then go off to jobs at top orchestras around the country.

As overseen by Tilson Thomas — who is also music director at San Francisco Symphony and, in a hard-to-believe twist, occasionally had Gehry as a babysitter when he was a kid growing up in Los Angeles — New World is a serious, ambitious outfit. But the youth of its players, and perhaps also its location in a beach town, gives it a natural interest in informality and unconventional programming. At its old home, a converted movie house called the Lincoln Theater, New World initiated a series of brief concerts with a ticket price of $2.50.

The new hall will dramatically increase the symphony’s opportunities for public outreach and the use of digital technology. It also carves out a separate suite of spaces for the young musicians themselves. Arguably, in fact, the heart of Gehry’s design is not the auditorium but rather the rehearsal and recording rooms that make up the southern half of the New World Center. Taken together, these spaces suggest a whitewashed seaside village beneath the larger building’s protective roof.

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The village is not small: It includes 24 coaching and practice rooms, four chamber ensemble rooms, three percussion studios, three guest-artist suites, a conference room that doubles as a performance space and a separate rehearsal room for Tilson Thomas. Many of these areas are wired for high-speed Internet connections, allowing the musicians to sit for live video instruction by teachers in other cities.

The public, though it is given fleeting glimpses of those back-of-house rooms and a stacked stair connecting them, will mostly experience the building as two large, connected spaces: the soaring atrium, which includes a bar topped by a blue-titanium canopy, and the concert hall. Connecting the two at ground level are a pair of low-ceilinged, snaking corridors that bring audience members into the hall right next to the stage.

Most patrons will enter the building on the second level, after parking in an attached garage to the west. The 550-space garage was designed by Gehry’s firm, Gehry Partners, but as an architectural object it pales in comparison with another recently built parking structure with a design pedigree, Herzog & de Meuron’s stunning nearby 1111 Lincoln Road. It joins the concert hall and the park as part of a three-pronged Miami Beach redevelopment project.

Gehry’s firm originally signed on to design the park as well, but after battles over the budget and other issues, that job was handed instead to West 8. Crisscrossed by a dense series of stone paths and planted with a forest of palms, the park is known as Miami Beach SoundScape. If the name is terrible — wasn’t Miami SoundScape Gloria Estefan’s band? — the design convincingly balances easily legible geometric patterns with lush tropical landscape.

What New World’s audiences will find, once they’ve made their way through either the park or the garage to the auditorium itself, is a high-ceilinged but intimate room with sections of seating surrounding the stage on all sides, in the so-called vineyard style, and a scalloped window behind the orchestra offering views of palm trees and drifting clouds. The capacity here is 756, about a third of Disney Hall’s.

As is true at Disney, the Gehry-designed upholstery on the seats, two shades of blue flecked with cloud-like streaks of white, skirts the edge of tackiness. (There is nothing the architect enjoys more than tweaking conventional good taste.) Out in the atrium, banquettes lined with aqua-blue naugahyde work the same vein.

There are other connections to Disney Hall. Gehry has teamed again with its Japanese acoustician, Yasuhisa Toyota. (Though I sat in on a couple of rehearsals last week, I’ll leave analysis of the hall’s sound to my colleague Mark Swed, who will hear the orchestra in concert later this week.) And the new auditorium, like the one in L.A., owes a debt to the interior of architect Hans Scharoun’s Berlin Philharmonic, from 1963. All three designs show a clear interest in breaking down the symmetry and formality of traditional concert-hall architecture, suggesting an open, democratic alternative to the sometimes rigid world of classical music.

Perhaps the biggest departure from Bunker Hill is in the new hall’s palette of colors and materials. Instead of expanses of fir, the New World auditorium is lined almost entirely in curving, white-plaster forms. The overall effect is a certain coolness and lightness — edging into crisp detachment — at the expense of some of Disney Hall’s remarkable warmth.

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The plainness of the New World Center’s exterior is in part a simple reflection of a sizable but not extravagant budget. It is also meant to recall the mid-rise architecture of Miami Beach’s Art Deco hotels. And Gehry has worked this way plenty of times before: You can find boxy buildings throughout his long résumé, most of them holding architectural surprises within.

From one perspective, at least, there is something fitting about Gehry’s efforts in Miami to squeeze an extensive architectural program — concert hall, lobby, offices and what nearly amounts to a full-fledged music school — into a building that looks an awful lot, on the outside, like a giant shoebox. The most predictable shape for any concert hall, when it comes to acoustical performance, is precisely that — a shoebox. Boston’s Symphony Hall and the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam are both shoeboxes. The Musikverein in Vienna? Shoebox.

But what ambitious, contemporary architect wants to build a plain, hangar-like space, with straight rows of seats facing a distant proscenium stage, and leave it at that? At Disney Hall, Gehry solved the dilemma by turning the auditorium at a sharp diagonal to Grand Avenue, squeezing a vineyard-style collection of seats around the stage and wrapping the whole thing in shiny, stainless-steel panels. In Miami, by contrast, Gehry has turned the strategy inside out: with a certain deadpan restraint, he has used an acoustical ideal to drive the form of the entire complex.

To put it simply, Disney Hall is a shoebox disguised as a Frank Gehry building. The New World Center is a Frank Gehry building disguised as a shoebox.

christopher.hawthorne@latimes.com


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