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Fisher Dachs Associates - News - Making Some Noise: Omaha's Concert Hall - Modern and Masculine
 
Making Some Noise: Omaha's Concert Hall - Modern and Masculine

 
November 19, 2005
One year after garnering glowing reviews for the William J. Clinton Presidential Library and Museum in Little Rock, Ark., Polshek Partnership Architects has a classy new concert hall complex in downtown Omaha.

As with the Clinton library, the Holland Performing Arts Center is an essay in crisp, urban modernism. Both inside and out, with bold articulations and subtly surprising geometries and finishes, it looks like something you'd see in Switzerland - in Lucerne, say.

But crisp modernism seems the order of the day for quite a downtown building boom in this surprisingly lively Missouri River city of 402,000. (The metropolitan area population is 801,000.) Unlike Dallas and Fort Worth, where watered-down historicism has had a long and less than glorious run " think the Crescent, American Airlines Center and Bass Performance Hall " Omaha has given postmodernist pastiche a pass.

And, for a mere $92 million, Nebraska's largest city has a sonically satisfying 2,000-seat concert hall and a "black box" space that can seat as many as 450.

The Omaha Symphony's first full concert in the main hall, on Nov. 4, suggested that the acoustical consultants, Chicago-based Kirkegaard Associates, have managed an effective balance of clarity and spaciousness. One hearing left only a wish for a little more presence on the main floor and richer bass response.

Dallas' Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Center still has a far more sumptuous sound, and Bass Hall remains the sonic standard-bearer for multipurpose halls. Next to Omaha's new facility, Los Angeles' Disney Hall sounds more immediate, but drier and more analytical; Philadelphia's Kimmel Center diffuse and lifeless.

For years, the Omaha Symphony, Opera Omaha and major touring shows all performed at the Orpheum Theater, a pseudo-French renaissance extravaganza a few blocks away. Designed by Chicago architects Rapp & Rapp and opened in 1927, it was renovated as a performing arts facility and reopened in 1975. Further improvements were made in 2002.

The Orpheum provided better-than-expected acoustics for both opera and symphonic music. But at 2,600 seats it was considerably larger than the symphonic ideal, and the orchestra had to force to fill the big space. And, increasingly, there were problems coordinating booking dates.

By the late 1990s, there was talk of building a dedicated concert hall, without proscenium or stage house, next to the Orpheum. But the site was cramped, and eventually a two-block parcel was picked on Douglas Street, one of downtown's main east-west drags, facing the six-block-long park known as Gene Leahy Mall. Polshek partner Richard Olcott led the design team, working with Omaha architects HDR.

A recessed ground-level arcade, opening to the entrance lobby and box office, provides a podium for three levels of performance-hall lobbies. The main part of the facade is clad in gray, subtly striated zinc panels, laid vertically in staggered patterns. Walls above and below are finished in creamy limestone.

The ground-floor lobby has sheer windows stabilized by uncharacteristically clunky iron brackets. Upper-lobby windows are articulated with bold mullions and muntins. At both ends of the building, both inside the building and above it, elevator shafts are clad in oxidized copper, lending a splash of green to an otherwise cool exterior palette. But the lobbies end up cramping patrons between staircases and elevator shafts on one side, and steps leading into the concert hall on the other.

The concert hall, on the left, puts a slight flare on the traditional shoebox shape. It's capped with a crown of transparent and translucent glass, providing natural light inside the hall and, outside, a big, glowing beacon at night. To prevent noise bleed-through, the layers of extra-thick glass (3 inches on the outside, 2 inches inside) are separated by 10 feet of "dead" space.

The lofty brightness of the concert hall interior comes as a surprise. Side and rear walls are covered in smooth, creamy plaster tiles with subtle sound-dispersing patterns. The stage is wrapped in a shell of sycamore, a boldly grained wood halfway between birch and mahogany, with space in the middle for later addition of a pipe organ. (It's not yet funded, and no builder has been picked.) The sycamore is carried around onto fronts of the two layers of side and rear balconies.

The ceiling is a gently concave grid of heavy concrete panels. Over the stage is a multipanel wooden acoustical canopy to provide sound reinforcement onstage and projection out into the audience chamber. Three central panels can be adjusted, and further acoustical adjustments can be made by lowering or retracting strips of thick felt on upper side walls and above the canopy.

Separated by a grassy courtyard, where outdoor performances are envisioned, the black-box theater wasn't finished at the concert hall's opening. Walls are covered in grids of maple dowels; wooden panels will be suspended overhead. At the back of the courtyard is a founders room, darkly elegant with Brazilian cherrywood floors, walls and ceilings.

It may be politically incorrect to call this a masculine building, but the adjective does come to mind. The Holland Performing Arts Center is a serious building, but a welcoming one. Muscle and finesse are nicely balanced, vertical and horizontal, right angle and diagonal, light and dark. And Omaha now has one of the country's best-sounding new concert halls.

Dallas Morning News

By SCOTT CANTRELL