February 8, 2008
  UC San Diego’s New Music Center Design Combines Acoustic Performance with Striking Visuals

by Russell Boniface
Associate Editor

How do you . . . build a state-of-the-art Music Center that maximizes acoustical excellence and is visually striking?

Summary: The new 47,000-square-foot, acoustically enhanced Conrad Prebys Music Center currently under construction at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD), is the creation of Seattle-based LMN Architects. The building includes a recital hall designed in collaboration with accomplished acoustician Dr. Cyril Harris, who also designed the acoustics at Nordstrom Hall and Benaroya Hall in Seattle. Pending successful fund raising, the concert hall facility is scheduled to open in spring 2009. The Music Center is named for developer Conrad Prebys, who contributed $6 million to the project. Composer and conductor Rand Steiger, chair of the university's department of music, spearheaded the concept of the hall.

The UCSD Conrad Prebys Music Center will serve as a concert hall for the university as well as for aspiring musicians from San Diego schools, offering opportunities for concerts, clinics, and classes. With the foundation, structural framework, and most of the roof complete, building out the interior finishes and systems is ongoing. The cast-in-place concrete structure matches the color and texture of the surrounding campus buildings, while a glass-and-metal skin enhances the hall’s acoustic properties on the interior and allows views of landscaped courtyards outside. Double-pane glass walls on faculty studios isolate the rooms acoustically.

Every room an acoustical space
The Music Center will have four ensemble rooms for teaching and performing: a new 400-seat recital hall with an asymmetrical design of triangle-based walls and ceilings, convertible theater with electronic acoustics, rehearsal lab that’s a smaller recital room, and rehearsal room for orchestras. Each of the four rooms has its own acoustical requirements. The center also houses faculty offices that act as small teaching spaces, music studios, electronic music spaces, instrumental spaces for percussion, and smaller practice rooms for other instruments. Courtyards with terrace seating service outdoor performance events.

“Every room in the building is an acoustical space,” says Mark Reddington, AIA, design partner at LMN Architects. “Each has its own internal acoustics and has to be acoustically isolated. At the same time, there are other design parameters. One is interaction of the users because, even though they’re individually accomplished performers, artists, and composers, it’s important for them to learn from each other, share their thinking, and build an interactive community. The other is to build gathering spaces. A number of courtyard and arcade spaces will serve as circulation spaces, connected to a campus master plan for this portion of the campus, which is densely populated and where they’re evolving a university center.”

A recital hall of triangular-shaped walls, ceilings
LMN Architects’ asymmetrical design for the music center’s recital hall is composed of a series of triangles that make up the walls and ceilings. LMN worked in collaboration with acoustician Dr. Cyril Harris, whose career spans 60 years. “The recital room was focused on integrating the acoustical geometries and details with the architectural experience and expression of the room,” Reddington explains. “Acoustical design needs very strong diffusion in a room so that sounds generated by instruments on stage are diffused, or scattered, around the room in an even way. To do that, there needs to be complex geometries in all of the surfaces that fold the surfaces into various triangular shapes with different orientations. We wanted to take that acoustic design premise and push it to an extraordinary visual experience.”

The acoustical ceiling will be suspended from the building's roof with steel cables, and shock absorbers will isolate the structure from all external sound.

Reddington adds that because the school holds diverse performances, the faculty wanted a diverse, unusual recital hall. The asymmetrical, triangular-wall and ceiling design was a first for Cyril Harris and combined his acoustical expertise and experience with the fresh look Reddington wanted for the school. Harris, in a video that documented the project, told UCSD that he considers the Music Center to be a summation of ideas he developed throughout his career, pointing out that the center is similar to Nordstrom Hall in Seattle in sound absorption, but the non-symmetrical design would have more diffusion. “I think any concert hall I work on should have a physical character which is different than any other in the world,” Harris also said.

“These big triangular shapes fold their way around the room in different directions. There is no sense of an expression of walls and ceiling,” Reddington explains. “The whole enclosure of the room is one unified gesture, with the floor on one side going up, around, and back down to the floor on the other side. The sense of where the walls and ceiling are is completely lost.”

Reddington also likes that when people enter the room from different sides, they will have different visual and spatial experiences. “As you sit in different seats and experience the performance from different vantage points, your spatial experience of the room will also be different,” he says. “These big triangular shapes, in the scale of the room, are powerful.”

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Dr. Cyril Harris in a video from UCSD that documented the design, construction, and resulting sound of the new Music Center, said:

On opening night
“At the opening of Nordstrom Hall, I heard a lot of people say, ‘Wow, I've never heard anything like that before, you feel like you're sitting right there in the orchestra.’ I'd like to have them feel like that.”

On the design decision
“We did several preliminary drawings, and we usually do something symmetrical, but there was one that was non-symmetrical. Mark [Reddington] said, ‘Which do you like best?’ And I said, ‘I'd like to try this one, the non-symmetrical one.’ Why? One reason is I think it will have more diffusion. It would take the architects a lot longer to do the design, but Mark said, 'I want that one too.’”