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Opening up The Shell

Case Studies, Features | June 1, 2022 | By:

Fans of the San Diego Symphony have been singing praises for the new outdoor performance venue featuring The Rady Shell, inaugurated August 6, 2021, with a full-orchestra concert and a packed audience. As any musician will tell you, acoustics at outdoor performances are often a disappointing aural experience due to wind, intrusive noises and other problems like low tones only reaching the first two rows in front of a band shell, but not here. 

“It’s an amazing, spectacular outdoor venue,” says Rafael Payare, the symphony’s music director. “You actually can hear all the [different sound]  balances and perform the way you would in a concert hall.”

Key to this success is a fabric structure that overcomes a natural tendency of low mass materials like fabric to dissipate sound. A unique combination of PTFE, PVC and ETFE membranes was shaped and layered by the shell design team of Soundforms, Flanagan Lawrence Architects, ES Global and Expedition (the same partnership that perfected the concept for the 2012 London Olympics with its mobile acoustic performance shell [MAPS]). Design, fabrication and installation of the tensile structure that supports the shell was overseen by Fabritecture.

The shell itself is made of rolled steel framing clad with PTFE fabric that shelters a stage measuring 32 meters at the front and extending back 20 meters; the roof cantilevers 15 meters from the front of the stage. Also incorporated into the stage: a sound system that provides sound to the musicians so that one side of the orchestra can hear the other side, as well as the conductor.

It is apt that the new performance shell would be fabric, as the iconic fabric-roofed San Diego Convention Center is within a block or so of The Shell’s peninsula that shares the San Diego Bay with sailboats and other marine activity. Another shared fact is that fabric roofs reduce the structural loads that in turn reduce materials and embedded carbon footprints. The Shell won a IFAI 2021 Outstanding Achievement award for Fabritecture in the Hybrid Tension Structures category.

Project data

Client: San Diego Symphony

Architect of record; design of venue and support areas: Tucker Sadler Architects, San Diego, Calif.

Concept design & performance shell design: Soundforms with ES Global/Flanagan Lawrence Architects/Expedition

Technical design/fabrication of shell: Fabritecture, Queensland, Australia

Fabric : FGT-800 PTFE from Chukoh Chemical Industries Ltd. (main cladding); Soltis PVC from Serge Ferrari North America; ETFE used in limited areas.

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