Finding exciting forms for performance venues and in the process, inventing a new breed of structures.
By Mason Riddle
For more than two decades, FTL Design Engineering Studio has been a critical player in creating a new breed of performing art space across the country. Designers and engineers of lightweight buildings and tensile structures, the Manhattan-based firm has logged such projects as the Cirque de Soleil Theater at Disney World, The Metropolitan Opera’s traveling opera house and the Mesa Arts & Entertainment Center in Phoenix, Ariz., which incorporates three individual theaters into the overall design.
With both design and engineering studios, FTL works with an array of clients from design concept to construction. It is leading the shift from traditional mass and membrane structures to those more lightweight, flexible, and environmentally friendly as private clients, organizations and the general public increasingly realize the importance of treading lightly on the face of the planet.
“We do all kinds of projects for all kinds of clients, from Harley Davidson to the Metropolitan Opera,” says Nicholas Goldsmith, senior principal. “Actually, I really do like doing performance spaces. There are always challenges, from acoustics, to seating, to storage. I guess, over the years, we have done quite a few. It is a significant part of our practice; we always seem to be working on one or two.”
FTL works with both owners and architects in developing project concepts, creating tensile fabric patterns and in the final structural fabrication. It has worked with such prestigious architects as Santiago Calatrava, Richard Meier & Partners, Cesar Pelli & Associate Architects and James Carpenter Design Associates.
Thus, on a hot, sizzling July afternoon in FTL’s cool, quiet midtown studio, it was not surprising to learn that FTL had recently completed a portable stage in West Palm Beach, Fla., and that it was currently working on performance spaces in Sun Valley, Idaho, and Westport, Conn.
Center of attention
The West Palm Beach portable stage is at the center of City Place, a new mixed-use development based broadly on New Urbanism principles that opened for the 2006 holiday season. Using a traditional urban scale of buildings around a city square, the developer’s (Related Properties) goal was to create a sense of place, where people would gather to shop, dine and just hang out.
“The space is privately owned but used by the public,” explained Goldsmith. “The idea was to activate the public space, find ways to bring in people.” The answer was a multi-purpose stage that was acoustically acceptable, flexible and could be easily dismantled to open up the square. Accessible to all who visit the “town” square, which is bordered on one side by an historic, Spanish-style church, the elevated performance venue is modest in scale at 65m2. The demountable structure consists of an aluminum framework (Tyler Trusses) that locks into a permanent foundation. It is covered by a translucent tensile membrane made of Tenara (W. L. Gore & Assoc.), consisting of five fabric sections, and incorporates lighting elements. The structure’s self-lifting, custom-designed trusses allow for flexible canopy height, and the stage itself can be expanded to accommodate larger events. The Tenara fabric sections can be differently configured to allow for optimum acoustics, depending on the type of event. Surprisingly, the acoustics are very good, projecting strings and woodwinds forward, while providing a good level of onstage hearing for the musicians. A nice poetic touch? The City Place band shell sits directly in front of a large fountain programmed for varying water flow speeds and lighting.
Designing on the curve
With design schematics completed and approved, the future Levitt Pavilion for the Performing Arts in Westport is slated for construction in 2009. Sited on a peninsula of land between the Saugatuck River and Dead Man’s Brook, the multi-use complex will include a 465m2 stage building and an adjacent 232m2 building for concessions, restrooms, storage, and administrative offices. In addition to covered VIP seating near the stage, Levitt Pavilion will also boast lawn seating for 2,000.
The stage consists of steel framework covered by a PTFE glass tensile membrane supported by steel, “tree-like” structures that eliminate the need for other framing. According to Goldsmith, the design challenge was to create a slope that would provide good sightlines and a sense of enclosure from the nearby library parking lot. The venue’s curved, lyrical design visually echoes the shape of the unique site. “Using the two bodies of water and natural landscaping, we were able to create an outdoor room where the focus is the stage and the view through the stage to the water beyond,” Goldsmith says. “The shape of the fabric is based on a year-round structure in a northern climate.”
The Levitt Pavilion will also incorporate a “green screen.” This metal grid will support an array of vegetation that will not only increase the privacy of the site, but also add texture and color to the indoor-outdoor performing arts complex.
A shell for all seasons
The Sun Valley Summer Symphony will be the primary user of the Sun Valley Performing Arts Center. A project spearheaded by the symphony and the Sun Valley Co., which has developed much of the mountain community, the expansive facility will consist of an 817.5m2 permanent wood stage structure with an additional 930m2 of enclosed space for backstage production needs and storage. It will provide 35,000 covered and lawn seats for patrons.
The innovative design incorporates both permanent and removable components to maximize its use year-round. A permanent steel cable-net structure will be supported by radial trusses and covered by wood/copper cladding and shingles. Steel cables and Kevlar ropes will support a seasonal, tensile, fabric membrane, covering approximately 1,500m2. The translucent, demountable fabric will be removed during the snowy winter months. Overall, the pavilion will be eight stories in height with about 6m recessed into the ground.
FTL’s biggest challenge was the demanding climate. “We needed to create a structure that could resist the heavy snow loads of a skiing area during the winter months; we really have created a snow tent,” Goldsmith explains. “But, at the same time, we needed to create an outdoor, under the ‘tent’ feel for the symphony’s free outdoor concerts in good weather.” The solution? Two interconnected structures. “By creating two tensile structures which tie together,” Goldsmith says, “we’re able to construct a year-round stage and a stage house with a seasonal audience cover.”
FTL’s sophisticated design also will create a resonant chamber that will allow sound to well up and out to the audience while still using weatherproof materials. The dramatic natural Sun Valley landscape was also given great consideration. “It is very important to be sensitive to the landscape,” Goldsmith says. “Our design enhances, or extends the landscape into the performance facility through the use of stone walls and the attention to the outdoor lawn seating.”
When will the Sun Valley Performing Arts Center start presenting events? “In the future,” Goldsmith says with a smile. “In the future, I am confident.”