Los Angeles, too often dismissed as “tinsel town” for its association with the entertainment industry, is a vibrant hub of the performing arts, with sophisticated audiences and an abundance of local talent. The LA Philharmonic fills the 2400 seats of Walt Disney Concert Hall for its adventurous programs of classical music, and the LA Opera has sold out the cavernous Chandler Pavilion for a succession of acclaimed productions. The problem - for performers and audiences alike - is a shortage of theaters that combine ideal sight lines and exemplary acoustics. Lacking the generous state subsidies that sustain intimate halls in Europe, American auditoria are shaped by the need to generate revenue from ticket sales and to attract corporate sponsorship.
That bothered Dale Franzen, who had sung opera for 23 years in jewel-box theaters all over Europe, and understood the value of engaging an audience, face to face. To create a showcase for challenging music, opera, theater and dance, she enlisted the support of Santa Monica Community College, a lively institution in west LA that strives to educate an audience far beyond its campus. Their shared vision sparked a quintessentially American hybrid. Dustin Hoffman (who took his first drama class at SMC) led the fund-raising, the city of Santa Monica approved a bond issue, philanthropist Eli Broad provided an endowment, and the Broad Stage opened its doors in October.
The 499-seat theater was designed by Renzo Zecchetto, a Chilean-born architect who has designed houses and institutions from his office in Santa Monica over the past two decades. As a graduate, he was studying the Jesuits’ wooden buildings in Patagonia when he chanced to read The Place of Houses, a treatise co-authored by Charles Moore, and, on impulse, went to work for him in California. There he designed an arts center theater that reminded Franzen of the Rome Opera, and a bond was forged. “From the start, I knew they wanted a versatile, high-quality hall, and I designed the room from the inside out”, recalls Zecchetto. “The architecture was shaped by the acoustics: curved planes and boxes to reflect sound, and lighting integrated into a seamless whole”.
Long before the exterior was finalized, Zecchetto and project architect Michael Stebbins worked with acousticians Ron McKay and Chris Jaffe of Jaffe Holden to configure the auditorium. Convex baffles of hard plaster and carved mahogany arch inwards within a cube of space, emerging as a wooden wedge above the masonry walls. The 15-meter height of the volume allows the sound to resonate, and the baffles direct it to the fan of orchestra seats, shallow balcony and stage boxes to either side. Voices require no amplification, and sound is dampened by drawing fabric drapes behind sliding screens of perforated wood. Sounding boards can be raised and lowered above the proscenium, and two more conceal the lighting gantries.
As in Disney Hall, where the Gehry team worked hand-in-hand with Japanese acousticians to achieve an ideal marriage of sound and architecture, function generates beauty. In fact, the process and the product were remarkably similar in concept in both halls, though each has its own distinctive character. The drama begins before the curtains part. From the back of the auditorium the rounded wood prows and angled white stucco planes that frame the stage resemble yachts in full sail, with the stage boxes as suspended dinghies. The planes are layered and backlit, presenting constantly shifting perspectives and turning the auditorium into a habitable sculpture. The performers have the best view of all; from the edge of the stage all the elements form a single symmetrical composition as in an 18th-century court theater.
There’s a similar, though subtler, shift of expressive forms as you walk around the exterior. Zecchetto placed the theater to the north of the site, linking it to a former elementary school that he remodeled to serve as classrooms, offices, rehearsal spaces and a 99-seat black box theater. Parking surrounds the building on three sides, though this may eventually be put underground so that the open space can be landscaped as a public plaza. A mahogany canopy extends from the southwest corner to define the entry and protect an outdoor gathering place. The upper level is fully glazed above a broad band of dark basaltic stone that clads the inner and outer sides of the structural frame along with form-poured concrete. The iron-free glass serves as a welcoming lantern at night and reveals the tapered wood enclosure of the auditorium. The two-level lobby acts as a sound and thermal buffer, and is naturally cooled by ocean breezes that are drawn in from the west and evacuated through a ceiling compressor to the east.
Angled hoods conceal mechanical services on the west side and are modeled by sunlight. That provides a boldly sculptured façade, drawing attention away from the bulky stage tower to the north and reversing the convention in theater design, by which the public entry is played up and the rear is left blank. “The idea”, explains Zecchetto, “was to wrap a simple volume around the auditorium. It’s a poetic abstraction of the two masks of theater and an expression of the artistic and human drama within”.
The site is owned by the State of California, and that spared the building committee the tedious ordeal of a city design review; a playground for philistines that chokes off adventurous architecture in Santa Monica. (It’s ironic that Santa Monica gave its name to a loose association of
cutting-edge architects in the 1970s, when Frank Gehry and many of his peers were located in the warehouses of the city’s former industrial zone. Now, many firms have relocated to more affordable neighborhoods and the best architecture is rising elsewhere). The surroundings of the theater are banal, with a tire store and generic apartment buildings to either side, and a commercial boulevard to the south.
However, Santa Monica College wanted to be a good neighbor and they responded to local residents’ concerns about increased traffic by scaling back the original plan for 750 seats. That reduced the cost of construction (estimated at $ 45 million) and potential income but enhanced the artistic experience.