Difficult mission is accomplished

April 30, 1995|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,Sun Staff Writer

Multipurpose performing halls have typically given theater-goers plenty to complain about.

If a facility is suitable for intimate drama, naysayers argue, it usually doesn't have proper acoustics for a symphony orchestra. And if it functions well as a recital hall, it probably won't have the backstage facilities necessary for full-scale theatrical productions.

But at the Peggy & Yale Gordon Center for Performing Arts, the $4 million multipurpose facility that opens tonight, performers and patrons alike may be hard pressed to find anything to knock.

Its design team, led by the local architectural firm of Richter Cornbrooks Gribble Inc., set out to prove it's possible to build one hall that can showcase all of the performing arts -- including ++ music, theater, dance and film -- without compromising any of them.

Although it may be weeks or even months before enough different groups actually test the limits of this privately funded performing arts mecca, the designers appear to have accomplished their mission.

With fewer than 550 seats, the Gordon is intimate enough that no one in the audience will ever be farther than 70 feet from the stage. Yet it is technologically sophisticated enough that it can be transformed to more than a dozen different configurations to suit a particular medium. Unpretentious, comfortable, eminently versatile, it sets a new standard for multipurpose facilities in Maryland and beyond.

Built as an addition to the Jewish Community Center at 3506 Gwynnbrook Avenue in Owings Mills, the 20,000-square-foot Gordon Center has a buff-colored brick exterior that matches the rest of the 1977 complex and a rounded marquee that marks its separate entrance.

With its unornamented geometry and large, glass-enclosed lobby, the exterior is likely to remind some patrons of the Lyric Opera House, whose 1982 expansion was also designed by RCG. The Gordon's lobby, part of which doubles as an art gallery, has an abstract modern quality that recalls the Lyric, too. But this is no Lyric Lite.

At the heart of the Gordon is a 500-seat performing hall, with a modified thrust stage and related support facilities. For certain performances, seating can be increased to 548 seats. The three factors that leave it so well-poised for success are its size, its setting and the built-in accouterments that make it so versatile.

Unlike a hall with 2,500 seats, the Gordon is built on an intimate scale. The stage is 35 feet by 70 feet -- the same size as the Lyric's, and large enough for a 60-piece symphony orchestra. But the Gordon has only one-fourth as many seats as the Lyric -- 16 rows in all, two-thirds of which are less than 50 feet from the stage. With the floor of the hall gently sloped for unobstructed sightlines, there's not a bad seat in the house, and it's all barrier-free.

Because the Gordon Center was added to an existing facility, builders didn't have to construct as much ancillary space as they would with a freestanding building, and funds could be concentrated on the hall itself. A second phase has been designed to provide extra rehearsal space and dressing rooms, when funds become available. But from the outset, designers took full advantage of the center's link to the Jewish Community Center to provide back-of-the-house space for performers, including classrooms that double as rehearsal space and a multipurpose room that can be a reception area. Performers will even be able to use the center's pool.

Money saved by linking the performing hall to the community center was used to build features that make the Gordon among the most acoustically flexible facilities of its size in the country. Acoustical baffles and ceiling "clouds," a movable acoustic shell and motorized curtains can be used to adjust the hall for a wide range of performing conditions.

In addition, the center has a 650-square-foot orchestra pit that accommodates 45 musicians. A hydraulic lift allows the pit to be raised from basement level to the floor of the hall, increasing its capacity, or to stage level, to extend the performing space. All these built-in features shorten the time needed to "tune" the hall and reduce the need for a large stage crew, reducing the cost of tickets.

Howard Downing, principal-in-charge of the project for RCG, said the configurations may range from a single speaker before a closed curtain to a full orchestra with an acoustic shell for a backdrop.

"There are some people who say you can't build a multipurpose hall without compromising one kind of performance or another," Mr. Downing said. "We say it is possible, and this is the proof. Lighting. Acoustics. Sightlines. This hall can handle anything from the very small to the very large. The whole idea here is that no matter what you're doing, there is no compromise."

What sets the Gordon apart is that it has so many features designed to increase acoustic flexibility, even though it has so few seats. And because it's so intimate, it doesn't have the sightline problems of larger halls.

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