Exterior work capped off, literally, with event


Ceremony marks halfway point for BSO's new center

October 20, 2003|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,SUN ARCHITECTURE CRITIC

The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's new concert hall in suburban Washington passes a key construction milestone today when builders hold a "topping off" ceremony to mark completion of its exterior shell.

The event, set to begin at 10:30 a.m., is a sign that the $90 million project, called the Music and Education Center at Strathmore, is halfway finished and on schedule for its targeted opening in the winter of 2004-2005.

Representatives of the Strathmore Hall Foundation, the operator, have expressed a strong desire to open in early December of next year, which would allow them to book revenue-producing holiday concerts and events. The exact date must be approved by Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan.

Designed by William Rawn Associates of Boston, with Grimm + Parker of Calverton as the associate architect, the music hall is rising at 10701 Rockville Pike in North Bethesda, on the grounds of the historic Strathmore estate, now an arts center. Funds are coming from Montgomery County, the state and private sources.

The 2,000-seat concert hall will be a setting for performances by the BSO and Washington Performing Arts Society, as well as other classical, jazz, folk, bluegrass and world music groups.

Additional spaces include a 140-seat cafe, 92-seat reception room, a large north lobby, a full-service kitchen and banquet facilities and a 21,000-square-foot education center. The education center will provide instruction by the Levine School of Music and the Montgomery County Youth Orchestra and will house other resident organizations, such as the National Chamber Orchestra and Masterworks Chorus and Orchestra.

Rawn, who designed the hall to be as intimate as possible, is pleased with the way it is turning out. "When you're standing in the first balcony, you feel as if you could almost reach out and touch the stage," he said. "That was our goal - that sense of intimacy. As the hall is closed in, it's going to feel even more so."

This is the first time the architect has designed a concert space in a concrete structure. Another hall for which his firm is well known, Seiji Ozawa Hall at Tanglewood in Massachusetts, has a steel skeleton.

By the topping-out point, Rawn said, a concrete building is much more fully enclosed than a steel building. As a result, "you can see much more clearly, much earlier."

Rawn said he's also happy with the way the building is nestled in the hillside and doesn't overwhelm the nearby mansion. It's the equivalent of an 11-story building, but the side closest to the mansion seems more like a five-story structure.

Eliot Pfanstiehl, president and chief executive officer of the Strathmore Hall Foundation, said the building's curving forms will set it apart from most concert halls. "You flow through this building," he said. "You don't take any straight lines. It's as un-boxlike as anything. The roof reflects the rolling hillside. You're constantly having your experience smoothed out for you."

The building has two personalities, an urban side facing south and a more suburban side, facing north to a park, Pfanstiehl said. "We wanted the architecture to invite the outside in where it's appropriate, and the appropriate side is the north side."

Looking out from the large window wall in the north lobby, "you feel as if you've been transported to another place," he said. "It should be a striking oasis of green - serenity in the midst of urbanity."

Rawn said he would like to have the bulk of construction finished at least two months before the first concert, so acoustician Lawrence Kirkegaard can have plenty of time to fine tune the performing space.

In Philadelphia, one of the complaints about Verizon Hall at Kimmel Center was that construction crews were working up until opening night, and the musicians didn't have sufficient time to test the hall.

"As architects, we recognize that the acoustics have to be very good," Rawn said. "You can have a fascinating design, but if the acoustics don't work, you have failed."

Rawn noted that Strathmore will be the next major U.S. concert hall to be completed after Walt Disney Hall, which opens this month in Los Angeles. While that project took 15 years to complete, he said, Strathmore has moved much faster.

"You know how hard these things are to build and to finance?" he said. "The county and the state have to be incredibly proud of their accomplishment."

Design advisory panel

Otis Rolley III, Baltimore's planning director, has named two design experts to serve on Baltimore's Design Advisory Panel, the seven-member group that reviews plans for key buildings throughout Baltimore.

The new panel members are Deborah Dietsch, a Washington-based architecture and design writer and former editor of Architecture magazine, and Mark Cameron, executive director of the Neighborhood Design Center, a registered architect and former coordinator of the graduate program in landscape architecture at Morgan State University.

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