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

A box wrapped in mere glass and white plaster — this is a Frank Gehry design? Yep. Take a look inside. This place toys with first impressions.

January 24, 2011|By Christopher Hawthorne, Los Angeles Times Architecture Critic
  • The auditorium of the New World Center in Miami Beach.
The auditorium of the New World Center in Miami Beach. (Rui Dias-Aidos )

Reporting from 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.

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.

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.

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