Architecture and Acoustics in an Era of Experimentation

5.24.2021 | Clifford Gayley, FAIA, Principal | Cultural + Civic Realm

Architecture and acoustics are inextricably intertwined, using the same tools (volume, shape, surface) to create places for the exchange of ideas transmitted through sound, movement, and words. This remains true for well-established building types like concert halls, theaters and opera houses. It is also true for new, emerging types that respond to changing client demands.

The Pop-Up

Spaces beyond rehearsal and performance rooms can also be planned as sonic spaces in ways that support impromptu music activity and performances. Lobbies (such as at the Performing Arts and Humanities Building at University of Maryland, Baltimore County) can be reimagined as highly visible venues that take advantage of their typical tall volumes, with careful planning around room proportion, ceiling and wall absorption, and built-in audio-visual infrastructure.

At Berklee College of Music, a new type of flexible space ¬– a performance space that during the day serves a 400-seat dining function ¬– provides a unique venue for a pop-up Cafe Show concert series: a 5-night-a-week, student-run performance series that celebrates this College’s entrepreneurial focus on students developing their artistic brands. Such frequent and radical flexibility requires careful thinking around ease in turnover, including: acoustic infrastructure of reflective and absorptive surfaces and tall volume, plug-and-play A/V system around the stage, lighting grid with well-developed presets, low stage (2 steps up with cabling integrated to floor boxes), upper level dining balcony for added audience capacity and for late dining to overlap during changeover to performance mode.

The Cauldron

Universities seeking to foster interdisciplinarity and creativity are repositioning the arts and developing new types of facilities that encourage transdisciplinary activity, within the Arts and across all disciplines. A key challenge with these facilities is creating real places of collision where researchers, artists, and collaborators in one space are aware of the work of other teams; mere co-location is not enough.

At Duke’s Rubenstein Arts Center, a non-departmental, provost-led facility, twelve studio labs (six for sonic and movement activities, six for visual art activities) meet that challenge with a system of double barn doors and large acoustic windows that allow each studio to regulate how and when it opens to and helps activate the shared interior hub or lobby. Studio labs can be physically open (with both barn doors retracted on either side of the window), visually open (with both barn doors deployed in front of the opening) and closed off for privacy when needed (with the inner door in front of the window and the outer door in front of the opening). Visible through the large acoustic glass windows, activities within each studio lab animate the life of the building and strengthen community across teams. With both barn doors physically open to create a large portal, studio labs can transform into an extension of the shared lobby welcoming visitors or other teams informally for some shared activity. Creating this flexibility of aperture required careful architectural and acoustic coordination.

The Mashup

Learning institutions are experimenting with ways to bring a building’s most active spaces together in one place in exciting ways, requiring careful acoustic attention.

At the Boston Public Library, a new type of space – the Big Urban Room – deploys a mash-up of uses to engage the life of the library with a busy retail corridor. An absorptive ceiling prevents sound created by one activity from disturbing other adjacent activities. Included in this continuous and open Big Urban Room is a café and public radio studio (WGBH) at a prime corner overlooking Boylston Street. Over time, the café and studio – the most dynamic parts of this experiment – have thrived, becoming a theater where people come to watch radio live, whether NPR or bluegrass concert, right in the heart of the library.

The Inversion

As campuses expand from their cores to define new precincts around forward-looking goals, rethinking the multi-use hall (for music, theater, dance and spoken word) can be an important ingredient to new precincts.

At Harvard Business School, Klarman Hall defines a new type of convening hall at the heart of Harvard’s evolving Allston Campus. It enables uniquely intimate conversations between presenters and participants (audience members are elevated to participants in this space) and among participants around pressing issues and problems facing society today. To do so, Klarman Hall experiments in inversion – inverting the acoustic formula of the concert hall (reverberant hall damped by variable acoustics as needed) to prioritize the spoken word (in an acoustically dry hall with reverberance added electro-acoustically as needed).

An adjustable and transparent acoustic ceiling over the stage reshapes natural room acoustics around three occupancy parameters that maximize utilization: 300 seats, 600 seats, 1000 seats. For 300 and 600 seat use, a voice lift system is deployed from the ceiling that allows participants to speak audibly without waiting for a hand-held mic to be passed to them. An electro-acoustic system tunes the reverberance of the hall for music events ranging from soloist to jazz ensemble to full orchestra. A 70-foot by 18-foot high-definition video screen serves convening uses, music uses, and theater uses (as a virtual proscenium arch). Such experiments stretch the collaboration between architects, acousticians, A/V consultants and theater consultants in exciting ways.

The Immersion

Learning spaces, whether for incubation, rehearsal or performance, can create immersive experiences tied both to place (connecting to daylight and views) and to creative process (revealing how a work is made).

The Tanglewood Learning Institute’s Linde Center for Music and Learning experiments with immersing its programming in Tanglewood’s memorable landscape as it curates multi-day, cross-cultural activities bringing artists and audiences together in new ways, while eliminating any sense of back-stage. Three studios (small, medium, and large) open musicians and audience to views and balanced daylight on multiple sides. Studio E, the largest, features the landscape as backdrop to performance, with a continuous glass curtain wall as the upstage wall. Oversized barn doors directly connect the stage and the lobby introducing an unexpected and palpable informality – with audience entering and exiting the room from the stage (same as performers) and with the lobby morphing into the off-stage area during performance. A shared Café brings audience and performers together around long farm tables. In these ways, learning and artistic exploration can be tied to sense of place and a broader community.


This essay is originally published as a chapter in:

Rooms for the Learned Musician: A 20 Year Retrospective on the Acoustics of Music Education Facilities, 1st Edition ©2021, published by Springer, edited by Lauren M. Ronsse, Martin Lawless, Shane J. Kanter, David T. Carreon Bradley

The full book can be purchased at:

This book chapter can be purchased at:

Photo Credits: Robert Benson Photography, Bruce Martin Photography