- The Washington Times - Friday, February 4, 2005

Highbrow culture isn’t just for cities anymore. Suburbia, home to subdivisions and shopping malls, is fast building the type of sophisticated arts centers traditionally located downtown. This cultural surge, fueled by suburban wealth and political power, is providing civic focus to sprawl.

Among the new facilities in the hinterlands is a $7.2 million arts complex near the massive Mall of America outside Minneapolis. Northwest of downtown Atlanta, the $106 million Cobb Galleria Performing Arts Center has broken ground.

In Orange County, south of Los Angeles, a 2,000-seat concert hall is being built next to an already thriving performing arts center.

Washington joins the trend with tonight’s opening of the $100 million Music Center at Strathmore in North Bethesda. The 190,000-square-foot complex houses a concert hall more polished and intimate than many urban venues, including those at the Kennedy Center.

This elegant wood-paneled auditorium, a second home for the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, is the gem within an architectural setting that’s appropriately suburban in demeanor — low-slung, laid-back and linked to a parking garage.

Reflecting a less appealing face of suburbia — atomization — the hall’s grand, public lobby isn’t positioned as the communal heart of the building. Instead, it’s sequestered at the farthest end like a McMansion on a cul-de-sac. Rather than coming together in a civic room, people are quickly channeled away from one another up separate staircases into their seats.

Part of this disconnection stems from the way the large music center is configured within Strathmore’s 11-acre property. Boston architect William Rawn, who collaborated with Grimm & Parker Architects of Bethesda, didn’t completely embrace the suburban-ness of the site. Instead of fronting the building on Rockville Pike as a roadside landmark, he tucked it behind Strathmore’s Colonial Revival mansion, used as an arts center since 1983.

“On the road, it would have been no different than a shopping center,” Mr. Rawn says. “Maintaining the green space on Rockville Pike says there’s something special here. It gave us the opportunity to put a building in the landscape.”

Taking advantage of the hilly parkland, the architect chose a less visible location in part to gain enough room for the 1,976-seat concert hall and educational wing. The large building is built into a steep slope so its height doesn’t impinge on the 1902 mansion and adjacent gazebo.

Mirroring the rolling landscape are sinuously curved roofs, which add a lyrical note to an otherwise chunky structure. Although it creates a strong signature for the building, this bending profile is only fully appreciated from the mansion or walking paths around the site.

Below the roofline, walls of light-colored German limestone impart a sense of civic permanence. Tiered and curving sections of glass on the lower stories add a welcome note of transparent lightness. Clumsily detailed in some places, they also recall suburban office buildings — an image perhaps unintended but not completely out of place.

The most monumental — and pleasing — facade belongs, ironically, to the portion of the education wing facing Tuckerman Lane, the part of the building that fewest people will experience. Its limestone mass, crisply composed with tall, narrow windows, creates a strong presence that drivers will see on their way to the parking garage on the other side of the street.

Some may mistake the canopied entrance in this wing for the front door of the music center. But even if they enter this lobby, meant for staff and performers, visitors can reach the box office on the opposite, higher side of the building by climbing a long staircase sensibly placed between the education wing and concert hall. Dancing overhead, a mobile of acrylic prisms by New York artist Meryl Taradash adds a playful touch.

Most patrons will park in the garage and walk to the music center through a curved, glass-enclosed sky bridge spanning Tuckerman Lane that deposits them directly at the front door. A pulsing, color-changing installation of ceiling lights by College Park artist Athena Tacha enlivens the journey at night.

Metrorail riders also have easy access to the concert hall. From nearby Grosvenor station, they have a short walk across Tuckerman Lane to the entrance in the side facing Strathmore Hall. This proximity to mass transit is a major asset, allowing both city dwellers and suburbanites the chance to enjoy a concert without having to drive.

Once inside the front door, patrons may be left wondering where all the state and county money — $50 million each — was spent. The lobby incorporating the box office and coat check is more utilitarian than celebratory. Buy a ticket and go directly to your seat, it suggests.

In the main corridor off the lobby, balcony ticket holders are ushered up a long flight of stairs next to a self-service cafe. Visible from the upper reaches of the staircase are the exhaust ducts in the kitchen roof, which juts out from the building envelope. Here, the atmosphere is about as glamorous as a shopping mall food court.

Those seated in the orchestra pass the cafe and turn the corner to descend into the main lobby at the north end of the building. This soaring, 64-foot-high space announces its public purpose with huge steel trusses and a glass wall canted outward to offer views of woods and pond. It opens to an outdoor terrace where concertgoers can enjoy intermissions during warm weather.

Audiences higher up in the hall get the chance to overlook the dramatic lobby from two balconies. From the lower one, a staircase descends into the big room.

Mr. Rawn says he placed the lobby on this side, away from the parking garage and Tuckerman Lane, so that patrons could experience Strathmore’s bucolic site.

But in doing so, he buries the main event.

To discover the space, people must make the lengthy trek from parking garage to entrance box office to promenade to lobby. Maybe the architect figured suburbanites were used to long commutes.

Certainly, the hall itself is worth the trip. Mr. Rawn worked on its design with Chicago acoustician Lawrence Kirkegaard and Connecticut-based Theatre Projects, the dream team that shaped Ozawa Hall at Tanglewood. They have endowed Strathmore with a feeling of intimacy similar to that of the famous venue in Massachusetts’ Berkshires.

Like a violin, the hall appears to be carved almost completely of wood.

Birch-paneled walls and floors, maple seats and stage exude warmth and richness.

Boxes are staggered on the walls to maintain clear sightlines. Orchestra seating, balconies, aisles, railings and art glass light fixtures are all curved to add sensuousness to the hall’s shoe-box shape. The overall effect is taut and simple, without a lot of fussy details.

Acoustically, the challenge of the hall, Mr. Kirkegaard says, was “to meet the demands of each type of music played here,” from orchestral symphonies and Broadway musicals to amplified rock bands.

Metal mesh applied to the ceiling and walls permits sound to travel through the perforated surfaces to the concrete structure of the hall. From there, it is reflected back into the hall or dampened by sound-absorbing curtains dropped into place behind the mesh.

Over the stage, transparent acrylic canopies are meant to balance clarity and reverberations for listeners, while allowing musicians to better hear themselves perform.

Similar acoustical adjustments were made to the two 40-foot-high rehearsal halls and nine practice rooms in the education wing. These facilities, plus classrooms and offices for several arts organizations, are commodious but not lavish.

The center’s educational component, common to many suburban art complexes, is significant in generating activity to keep the building busy during the day.

It reinforces Strathmore’s strong ties to community, even when its new architecture doesn’t always follow suit.

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