The back of the house moves to the fore Lyrical coda: Opera house's addition will create spaces for performers and an exciting view for passers-by.

October 29, 1995|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,SUN ARCHITECTURE CRITIC

For years, the Lyric Opera House has been Baltimore's Unfinished Symphony.

Its owner, the nonprofit Lyric Foundation, remodeled the interior and added a new lobby and loading dock in the 1980s. But board members never had enough money to make all the improvements they wanted, and it's had a curiously unfinished look as a result.

Now the foundation is finally ready to complete the composition. Set for construction starting this fall is a three-story, $2.4 million addition that will provide back-of-the-house features left out of previous expansions, including rehearsal space, dressing rooms and offices. It also will add a richness and complexity missing from the bland, brick appendages tacked on in the past.

The design by Richter Cornbrooks Gribble is so striking that it was singled out for an honor this month in the annual awards program sponsored by the American Institute of Architects' local chapter -- the only "unbuilt" project to be recognized.

Judges said the addition evokes the "celebration of arrival" one expects from a major performance hall and that it had the potential to transform the block, "like a glamorous marquee, into a dramatic civic focal point."

If the spirit of energy and vitality evident in the original design can be maintained through the construction period, it will add life not only to the building but also to the entire Mount Royal Cultural Center.

Designed by T. Henry Randall and modeled after the Neues Gewandhaus in Leipzig, Germany, the Lyric has always been a multipurpose hall, serving a variety of tenants. The latest addition marks the continuation of a multiphase expansion and modernization program launched after the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra announced plans in the 1970s to build its own home, the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall.

The improvements were intended to make the Lyric more attractive and competitive as a setting for Broadway-style touring shows as well as concerts and the annual productions of the Baltimore Opera Company, to fill the dates vacated by the symphony. The strategy has worked quite well for the 2,600-seat theater, which will turn 101 on Tuesday and is busier than ever.

For the most part, the earlier additions were designed to please patrons. The goal of the current project is to make the theater more attractive to performers as well, by improving conditions backstage.

Given the nature of the project, this could have been one of the more mundane additions to the Lyric. What's particularly commendable about the design is the way the architects have attempted to make it memorable -- a building that will enhance the theater-going experience for patrons as well as the performers and theater staffers who will use it day to day.

Richter Cornbrooks Gribble has been the architect for the entire modernization campaign at the Lyric -- a 15-year commission. The design team for this project is headed by Jonathan Fishman, a Yale-educated architect and Baltimore native who joined the firm in 1994 as director of design, after stints with Ayers Saint Gross in Baltimore and Hartman Cox in Washington. Other team members are David Perkins and Peter Schwab. The lead architects for the previous Lyric additions were Charles Richter and Ron Gribble, who have retired from the firm -- one explanation for the new design approach.

Magic of the theater

The site is a vacant parcel bracketed by two additions from the 1980s -- the main lobby to the west and the loading dock on the east. Occupied by a few scruffy pine trees, it permits views through to the south wall of the old Lyric Opera House.

Richter's master plan for expansion always called for this gap to be filled in; an early model showed a three-story section clad in brick consistent with the rest of the Mount Royal Avenue facade.

But when he became involved, Mr. Fishman said, he saw an opportunity to use the latest addition to make a break from the past and convey a side of the theater patrons don't normally see.

Because most of the original theater shell has been covered over and the 1980s additions are so unarticulated, he said, the complex has no specific architectural character.

"We were really dealing with a blank slate," he said. "We didn't want to just match the existing building, with respect to the buff brick. The Lyric is so staid. The idea was to get some of the magic of the theater into this building."

Playing off banality

To a large degree, the addition derives its strength from the way the architects play off the banality and sterility of the 1980s sections. In effect, they found a way to take the Lyric's greatest aesthetic shortcoming -- the monotonous beige wall surface -- and use it to their advantage, making it the backdrop against which the more intriguing infill building could pop out.

The architects accomplished their objective by treating the buff brick appendages as "bookends," then filling the gap between them with a three-story structure that has a completely different look.

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