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01.26.11

Frank Gehry Sings a New Tune

The famed architect’s futuristic concert hall, open this week in Miami Beach, is irresistible even to classical music novices. Cathleen McGuigan on Gehry’s latest masterpiece.

The famed architect’s futuristic concert hall, open recently in Miami Beach, is irresistible even to classical music novices. Cathleen McGuigan on Gehry’s latest masterpiece.

Miami Beach is a Benjamin Button city. A place where graying grandmas combed the sand 50 years ago, it began to grow younger as its decrepit art deco hotels were transformed into luxury getaways and its retirees replaced by pop stars and fashionistas. Even the arrival of high culture—the design scene and Art Basel Miami—has swept in with a brashly youthful and bacchanalian air. But the town’s adolescence may be over—and the reverse-aging process halted—now that Miami Beach is home to world-class architecture and the sense of solid permanence that such buildings bring.

Gallery: Frank Gehry’s New World Center in Miami Beach

Until a few days ago, the most important new structure was the raucously original parking garage by Herzog & de Meuron, a spot so cool that it’s become a party site and made the front page of The New York Times. (The same Swiss firm is designing the new Miami Art Museum, just beginning construction across Biscayne Bay from Miami Beach.) Then earlier this week, even more significantly for the city, Frank Gehry’s long-awaited concert hall opened.

This is the first music venue designed by Gehry since his masterpiece, Disney Hall, opened in 2003, with its shimmering, swooping curves of stainless steel crowning Bunker Hill in downtown Los Angeles. “When Disney opened seven years ago, I was never asked to do another concert hall!” says the architect. “The same with the Guggenheim in Bilbao—I was never asked to do another museum.” Perhaps prospective clients were scared off by the amazing achievement of those two projects, but anyone expecting Gehry to clone his own work in Miami Beach are in for a jolt.

Designed for the New World Symphony, an orchestra-cum-post-grad program for young musicians, the hall on the outside is, for the most part, a sedate white stucco box with a big glass front, with only a few signature Gehry flourishes, including a big sail shape that veers off the building’s side. The architect saved most of his surprises for the interior, where the lobby’s atrium looks as if several huge curved, ballooning white shapes have been lifted by helium up into the six-story space. Those forms, accessible by elevators or gently circling stairways, contain practice rooms, offices, and some of the state-of-the-art technology that make this facility the most sophisticated in the country. Young musicians can be coached via Internet2, for example, by a teacher in Paris or Moscow.

The concert hall itself is horseshoe-shaped, like Disney’s, but it’s much more intimate—756 seats to Disney’s 2,265. Its small size means “the audience is right in the music,” says Gehry. The five vast sail-like shapes that float against the upper walls both aid the acoustics and double as screens on which commissioned video art can accompany some orchestral pieces.

Gehry, who loves music, is the first to say that the quality of the sound matters as much as the architecture. (He worked here with the same acoustician, Yasuhisa Toyota, as he did on Disney Hall.) When he and his project architect, Craig Webb, first sat in the empty hall the day of the opening, listening as the orchestra rehearsed a piece by Schubert, they silently grinned and fist-bumped. One of the young musicians later validated their opinion: the sound, she said, is “so pure.”

Michael Tilson Thomas, the conductor who founded the New World Symphony, has known Gehry since he was an eight-year-old prodigy growing up in the San Fernando Valley; the architect, then in his 20s, was a family friend. They bonded over Bach when Gehry heard the kid practicing piano. As Disney Hall was about to open decades later, Thomas reached out to Gehry, to see if he’d like to design something for the Miami Beach orchestra.

This hall is a more modest endeavor than Disney, but Gehry was always good with modesty. Early in his practice, he frequently used everyday materials like plywood and chain link in his architecture. The Miami building isn’t fussy: the lobby floors are polished concrete, the walls are white plaster, the banquettes in the lounge areas are baby blue Naugahyde. Outside, says Gehry, “It’s a Miami building—it’s not meant to scream out in the neighborhood.” The strategy of the design is to lure in the community, especially those who might be put off by classical music. Come take a look, and listen, the building seems to say: anyone can see through the big glass front and catch those lyrical Gehry shapes—or peer into an all-glass rehearsal room. In the city-owned park in front of the building (designed by Dutch landscape architect Adriaan Geuze) people can watch and listen to concerts that will be piped outside and projected onto the exterior wall.

For all the high technology tucked throughout the inside of the building and into the park’s “Soundscape,” the design exemplifies Gehry’s down-to-earth humanism: he’s created a place for the future of music but for audiences of today. Next month the architect will turn 82, but with his energies, ambitions and sensibility, his age, unlike Benjamin Button’s, is no object.

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Cathleen McGuigan is an architecture critic and cultural journalist. A longtime contributor to Newsweek magazine, where she was also a senior editor for the arts, her articles have appeared as well in the Smithsonian, the New York Times Magazine, Art News, Rolling Stone and Harper’s Bazaar. A graduate of Brown University, McGuigan was a Loeb Fellow at the Graduate School of Design at Harvard and is an adjunct professor at Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism. She is at work on a biography of Aline Saarinen.