THE BROCKMAN HALL FOR OPERA AT RICE UNIVERSITY PACKS PROFESSIONAL ACOUSTICS AND AUDIO/VISUAL TECHNOLOGY WITHIN A HISTORICIST SHELL INSPIRED BY THE CAMPUS’S ORIGINAL BUILDING.
Architect Allan Greenberg Architect
Construction Manager Linbeck Group
Structural Engineer Walter P Moore
Theater Planner Fisher Dachs Associates
Acoustics and AV Threshold Acoustics
The Shepherd School of Music at Rice University is a prestigious institution that combines “a conservatory experience with the educational opportunities of a leading research university” for its 290 students. Among concentrations in performance, composition and music theory, musicology, and conducting, the school also supports an opera studies department. “Opera continues to be a thriving art form, requiring both individual and institutional support,” says Dean Robert Yekovich. At Rice, this commitment can be seen in the new Brockman Hall for Opera, designed by Allan Greenberg Architect (AGA).
Since 1992, the school has occupied the two-story Alice Pratt Brown Hall, designed by Ricardo Bofill Taller de Arquitectura with Kendall/Heaton Associates as the architect of record. The wide, flat building encloses the western end of the academic court established by the General Plan of Rice University and designed by Cram, Goodhue, and Ferguson Architects in 1910. The performance facilities, while excellent for concerts and recitals, limited the productions that the school could mount in its biannual operas: More space was needed. Rice began planning and fundraising for the project in 2005, and construction was completed in the summer of 2020. The building currently supports students (who already staged a socially distanced production last fall), but, due to the ongoing pandemic, it awaits its full unveiling.
The 84,000-sf new building, fully funded by philanthropic contributions, contains the Lucian and Nancy Morrison Theater, all relevant back-house facilities, a scene shop, rehearsal rooms, practice spaces, offices, and a prominent lobby. The hall itself is the central space in the building, with all others arranged around it across two main floors. The Brockman Hall for Opera is intended to complement the Shepherd School’s existing facilities, which explains its orientation toward Alice Pratt Brown Hall.
The school understood the importance of assembling the proper team to achieve the best acoustic and theatrical results: It first prepared a shortlist of acoustic and theatrical consultants, before selecting architects to form teams with companies from the list. The school initially hired New York-based Diller Scofidio + Renfro, whose involvement concluded at the end of schematic design. AGA, known for their classical expertise, was the architect for the project and partnered with consultants Threshold Acoustics, based in Chicago, and theater consultants Fisher Dachs Associates, based in New York. As this was AGA’s first theater project, the team worked in a tightly coordinated way to deliver a high-quality space.
The building’s primary function is as training space for students learning their musical craft. To provide a healthy distance for younger voices to project wtihout overextending themselves, the scale was reduced to 600 seats across four levels — a “scale that was big enough to whet appetite but intimate enough to feel supported,” says Matt Brogan, a consultant with Fisher Dachs. (For comparison, the Winspear Opera House in Dallas by Foster + Partners, seats 2,200). On the other hand, the ability for students to perform with a full orchestra was also necessary, so the supporting pit, which operates in two lifts, accommodates up to 70 musicians. This combination of small hall with large pit is rare among venues. To balance sound levels between vocalist and orchestra, the hall needed to be very tall, according to Threshold Acoustics’s Scott Pfeiffer. Here, the musical accompaniment, emanating from below the stage, is directed into the upper acoustic volume, while voices on stage are supported more directly by surfaces that surround the audience. The challenge was to meet acoustic needs while placing people close to the action — to “wallpaper the room with faces” for performers, Brogan says.
The project team considered various theaters as precedents and studied them closely by embarking on a benchmarking trip to Europe. The Royal Opera of Versailles was selected as the best model, and its influence is clearly seen in the tiering of the hall; in the way the levels step back in section (other opera models stack identical horseshoe-shaped concourses in plan); in the expressed free-standing columns on the uppermost level; and in the lunettes set into the curved upper corners of the room. The team tested the sound and sightlines together using VR headsets, through modeling techniques developed by Fisher Dachs, and inside Threshold Acoustics’s auralization room, which can “render” sound from different locations within 3-D models. A singer’s output is split between a head voice, for upper registers, and a chest voice, for lower registers. Pfeiffer says the selected theater scheme better supported the chest voice with a balance between presence and response: It’s like a “warm hug” for performers.
AGA’s surfaces in the main hall are classical in origin, but their articulations support acoustic performance. The lower level has large, solid surfaces, while the upper levels are increasingly ornamental — notably, in their use of balustrades — and the ceiling is largely solid. These choices best reflect sound to listeners. A custom orchestra shell for smaller ensembles can be assembled and then stored backstage. Operable panels, curtains, and a forestage reflector also help to tune the room. In repertoire where detailed dialogue is of primary importance, reverberations can be reduced to “dry up” the room and improve clarity. Concrete walls, grout-filled masonry, and plaster-filled GFRG are used, throughout. Exterior walls and room divisions use framing over CMU wall types, making for thick walls that minimize sound transfer. Practice rooms and offices are further isolated using special doors that seal on all four sides. Support spaces are built similarly: Rehearsal spaces are handsome and balanced for handling loud and soft sounds. Construction quality matters, as vibration absorbs energy (sound) that could otherwise be directed toward listening ears.
AGA’s finishes also conceal intensive technical systems. The building includes an estimated 80 miles of conduit, and state-of-the-art electronic systems are in place throughout, including a motorized rigging system with 30+ line sets in the stagehouse — only the second of its kind in Houston. The hall can support amplified performance, conference-style presentations, complex lighting arrangements, and multipoint video recording. An impressive shop also allows the school to fabricate its own sets, or to accept Broadway-scaled set rentals.
Color is used in the project’s main hall, vestibules, foyers, lobby, and on the exterior of the building. The intensity of AGA’s original vision for the interior, inspired by the polychromy of classical Greek architecture or Le Corbusier’s work, was attenuated during the design process. Though the performance spaces were expertly crafted for acoustic fidelity, the hall’s ornate facades became a surface unlike any that has been built on campus in recent decades. Their model was the AGA-designed Humanities Building at Rice, completed in 2000, and Lovett Hall, the campus’s first building, completed in 1912. Rather than facing outward, the opera hall’s primary elevation faces east toward Lovett, while its secondary southern elevation is enhanced with symmetric towers and an arcade below. Lovett establishes the powerful axis that organizes the Rice campus and the opera hall ends it, capping the interior courts of the university and turning away from the vast parking lots beyond.
Greenberg, who worked with Jørn Utzon on the Sydney Opera Hall as his first job out of architecture school, says that opera invites viewers into a world of fantasy. That this new building is fantastic is deeply appropriate. In searching for a fitting language for the Rice campus, Ralph Adams Cram rhetorically asked: “In what style shall we build?” “The method,” he wrote (as documented in Stephen Fox’s 1980 “The General Plan of the William M. Rice Institute and Its Architectural Development”), “was to become familiar with what had been done around the shores of the Mediterranean: Syrian, Constantinean, Byzantine, Lombard, Dalmatian, French, Italian, and Spanish Romanesque with a covert glance at the Moorish art of North Africa, and then try to put oneself into the spirit of enthusiastic builders of Southern race and see what would be the result.” Rice’s architecture, built over the course of 110 years, begins with this eclectic, imaginary source.
The Brockman Hall for Opera is more expressive than many contemporary institutional buildings — a notable distinction. It also opens deep conversations about context, style, and money that are beyond the scope of this text but deserve study elsewhere. For now, it’s enough to champion the impact the facility will have on the education of young performers at Rice for decades to come. The hall’s completion “feels like the culmination of my contributions to the School over my 18 years as dean,” says Yekovich, who will step down as dean and return to the faculty in June. “As I benefited from those who came before me, my legacy will hopefully make it possible for those who come after me to succeed.”
Jack Murphy is editor of Cite magazine. He lives in Houston.