The Express-News posted an article on September 2 about the city's Historic and Design Review Commission's review of the redesign of the Municipal Auditorium and its transformation into the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts. The Tobin Center will revitalize this neighborhood and all the performing arts in San Antonio in so many positive ways. But, change is often controversial and I'd like to address a few of the questions raised by the article and the comments posted on the mysanantonio.com web site.
With any civic project, the first question is "why do it?" Beyond the obvious and desperate need for better facilities for the performing arts in San Antonio, the Municipal Auditorium is no longer a building living up to its history or mission. Built in 1926 as a memorial to World War I veterans, the building is beloved by San Antonio residents for the active role it played in the city's life for decades. I've met so many people in San Antonio that fondly remember attending an opera there in the 1960s or celebrated their high school reunion there or attended a touring rock concert as a teenager. But in 1979 a major fire destroyed much of the old Municipal Auditorium. Except for the beautiful façade, not much is left of the grand original.
In its current form, the Municipal Auditorium is no longer serving the people of San Antonio. Many arts patrons have told me that they do not attend events there because of the inferior acoustics, poor viewing angles and the discomfort of the seats. If the building is a memorial to WWI veterans, does it serve that purpose if few use it? Does it honor Veterans Memorial Park across the street (which includes memorials to Vietnam, World War II, and Korean veterans, as well as all veterans of war) by not presenting world-class arts and culture events on a regular basis, like it did in the first decades of its existence? To fulfill its original mission, it must be upgraded into a modern performing arts center.
MODERN ART CENTERS
Expectations for concert halls have come light years from where they were in 1926. Think of the difference in fidelity in an old 78 record and a modern surround-sound stereo system! We demand that much more in our live concerts in 2010. Just since the 1990s, concert halls in American have made huge leaps in acoustics and the concert experience. We now expect world-class acoustics, more comfortable seats, bigger lobbies, more rest rooms and backstage facilities that enable modern, high-tech theatrical productions. The 1985 re-build of the Municipal Auditorium meets none of those expectations.
The city of San Antonio is so lucky to have such beautiful and historic buildings. It is one of the many reasons I love downtown. In addition to the gracious façade of the Municipal Auditorium, we have the Majestic Theatre. It was built as a movie house just before the Great Depression and is where the Symphony now plays most of its concerts. While most love its ornate interior, it is not sufficient to serve our community's needs. First there is the crowded calendar. The Broadway shows, the Symphony, touring productions and other local users battle each other for dates. San Antonio has grown and we can't be a one-concert-hall town anymore. (The Lila Cockrell Auditorium mostly serves conventions and is currently under renovation that will increase its value to visitors. Even when finished, it still won't fill all local needs.)
The Majestic is best suited for Broadway and doesn't meet the technical or acoustic needs of Opera, Ballet or Symphony. The simplest example of its technical limitations is the pit. While big enough for most current Broadway show bands, it is far too small for Grand Opera. Acoustically, most Broadway shows are now amplified. This works just fine in the Majestic. But, unamplified music needs a space designed and shaped just for that type of music. San Antonio has no such space...yet. But the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts will fill that need perfectly. When it opens in the fall of 2013, the Majestic will benefit too, as it will be able to expand its offerings and present shows that work best in that wonderful old movie house.
PRESERVING HISTORIC DESIGN
Many of the online comments to the September 2 article were about the Spanish Colonial Revival style exterior of the Municipal Auditorium. The genius of the current plans for the Tobin Center is that it saves the entire front of the building, which was the part not destroyed by the 1979 fire. The roof (which is not original) must be removed to fit the acoustically correct space inside. Without a higher roof, the acoustics will not be successful for unamplified music. Some concern was raised that the new parts of the building will overshadow the historic façade. While the roof will be higher, the difference will not be so obvious from street level. When you show a small model of the proposed Tobin Center, you can easily see the expanded roof and it appears to dominate visually. But when you attend a performance, you come up to the building at ground level. At this vantage point, the grandeur of the façade will be maintained. The highest part of any performing arts center (including the current Municipal Auditorium) is the stage house that contains the fly space for sets, lights and curtains. The fly space of the current building is not original and does not overshadow the historic façade, even though it is taller and architecturally different. The new taller fly space and roof will also not take away from the historic look from ground level.
There were also some web comments that the new building looks too much like a mosque. This look isn't from the proposed renovation, but from the historic part of the building. This was the style of many public buildings built in America in the 1920s. Here is a photo of the Municipal Auditorium and right below it a photo of the historic Municipal Auditorium at Fair Park in Dallas. Notice the similarity? The third photo is a close up of our Municipal Auditorium. To change these architectural designs would be to destroy our rich architectural history.
BUILDING IT RIGHT
One last comment I'd like to discuss and that is the criticism of hiring an architect from Seattle. The Bexar County Performing Arts Center Foundation will hire local (including the Zachry Construction Corporation) and national experts to build the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts. But the two most critical experts needed are an architecture firm with performing art center experience and the acoustical consultants. Here the Tobin Center has hit a home run. Concert hall construction is complex and a very narrow specialty. LMN Architects of Seattle designed the highly successful Benaroya Hall in Seattle and that experience is critical. You can read more about Benaroya at http://www.seattlesymphony.org/benaroya/.
The other critical hire is the acoustical design firm. The Bexar County Performing Arts Center Foundation has engaged Akustiks from Connecticut. This is the most exciting news! They were the consultants on the Schermerhorn Symphony Center in Nashville - a new building getting absolute raves for its acoustics. You can read about the firm at http://akustiks.net/.
The combination of the new Museum Reach of the Riverwalk and the new Tobin Center for the Performing Arts will be very powerful. Like Lincoln Center transformed the upper West Side of Manhattan, the Tobin Center will change downtown San Antonio forever. The changes will take time. The first impact will be on the strength of our local arts organizations. And 10 years after the grand opening in the fall of 2013, we will have a hard time remembering San Antonio before the vibrant Tobin Center. I can't wait!
For more blogs by Jack Fishman visit: www.sasymphony.org/blog
San Antonio Symphony
The SLL era begins October 2!
"These days having a mobile presence is a must, and InstantEncore delivers powerful apps that are incredibly easy to manage."