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No Walk On the Beach

Building team triumphs over sculptural shapes inside Frank Gehry’s first Florida job

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Frank Gehry’s first Florida building, a big bleached box in Miami Beach, looks more like a high-end department store than an eye-catching piece of “sculpitecture” by the architect of “swoopy.” But contained in the $160-million New World Symphony music academy and performance center—on schedule to open on Jan. 25 despite some last-minute hiccups—Gehry’s signature free-form rooms stand as tall as 80 ft, visible through a 180 x 80-ft picture window.

Photo: New World Symphony
Contained The largest curvilinear forms inside the big white music box in Miami Beach are behind glass.
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Other than to say “we put all the juice inside,” the architect is mum on whether the music-box shape was selected for context, economy or constructibility. But Benton Delinger, director of project management for the project’s theater consultant, Theatre Projects, New York City, says the music academy has the “hallmarks of a Miami building but is still Frank Gehry.” He calls the exterior “an appropriate Miami response.”

Fans of the Los Angeles-based Gehry Partners might feel robbed of breathtaking architecture. But the builders of the six-story, block-long New World Symphony (NWS) campus don’t seem to care. On the contrary, they are relieved that Gehry has forsaken his origami-like folds, at least on the surface. No mind-boggling coordinate geometry on the exterior. No concerns about a roller-coaster-like steel frame. No undue stress about envelope fit-up or a leaky facade.

The shoebox shape of the 100,641-sq-ft academy released the contractors, they chorus, to concentrate on the “nightmarish” conditions inside. For as much as the outside is restrained, the interior is a collection of Gehry’s description-defying double bends and tilts, with very few curved surfaces duplicated.

“What is not complicated on the outside, they made up for on the inside,” says Jesus R. Vazquez, president of the project’s lump-sum general contractor, Facchina Construction of Florida, Fort Lauderdale.

The unusual work sequencing, the hall’s demanding logistics, difficult access conditions and tricky trade coordination combined to create a job that was “overwhelming,” says Vazquez. But it also represents a triumph over many obstacles for the builders. There were 2,500 requests for information on the project. “It’s a lot for a building of this size but normal for a project of this complexity,” says Vazquez.

Despite the challenges, there are no claims against the owner. “We resolved issues as they arose,” in a spirit of collaboration, says Vazquez. “There was never any finger-pointing.”

The project is coming in on time and on its current $160-million construction budget, up from $135 million. “As construction has progressed, changes have been required to the construction documents for force majeure events, owner changes and unanticipated requirements of the city,” says David T. Lawrence, senior vice president at the Boston office of the academy’s development manager, Hines Interests.

For Miami Beach, the academy is an exercise in unpaving paradise. The building anchors a two-block redevelopment district that was most recently a city parking lot. The program includes the academy’s front yard—a 2.5-acre city park set to open in concert with the academy—and a completed city parking garage.

The city gave NWS $15 million toward construction and a $1-per-year land lease. Parkgoers will be able to attend NWS concerts, free of charge, via “wallcasts” projected onto a 100 x 80-ft facade “screen.”

NWS is moving to the new digs after 20 years at the Lincoln Road pedestrian mall, a block away. When the NWS took up residence, the surrounding neighborhood had become blighted. Most instrumentally, the NWS and its artistic director, Michael Tilson Thomas, championed the mall’s comeback, says Jorge M. Gonzalez, Miami Beach’s city manager. The new campus expands the mall’s sphere of influence.

The academy’s new home is designed to support practice, rehearsals, performance, recording and broadcasting, with high-quality acoustics and sound attenuation throughout. Like the facade, many interior surfaces will double as projection screens for concerts and light shows. The performance hall alone has 14 projectors, like a planetarium. For two-way distance learning, the building has 17 miles of fiber-optic cable for high-speed Internet2 transmissions. “A viola player might take a lesson from a teacher in Europe,” says Scott R. Ceasar, senior vice president of Cosentini, A Tetra Tech Co., New York City, the job’s consulting engineer.

The shoebox has an 80-ft-tall atrium—with four free-form, freestanding multifunction rooms as tall as 80 ft—set between the 756-seat performance hall and a six-story office building, which also houses practice studios and mechanical rooms. Two service footbridges, like massive catwalks, span the sides of the atrium from the office building to the hall. The ductwork runs are hidden above them.

The job’s success relied on lots of preconstruction planning, with Facchina on board a year before the groundbreaking. Qualifications, not the low bid, led Facchina’s selection of contractors.

Perhaps the biggest saving grace was the generous amount of practice and rehearsal time built into the schedule. This was done virtually using a Gehry staple, Digital Project 3D building information modeling (BIM) software, marketed by Gehry Technologies, founded by Gehry in 2002. The team also relied heavily on physical mock-ups to work out snags. For this, Facchina rented a Miami warehouse for 18 months.

Mind-Boggling Curves

Prior to the NWS project, Facchina and the steel, mechanical and drywall subcontractors were considered Gehry “newbies.” They had to get up to speed on Digital Project—and fast. The local contractors, more accustomed to working around concrete frames, had to figure out ways to install infrastructure around less-forgiving steel. Thanks to acoustical and low-noise-level requirements, the heating, ventilating and air-conditioning system became the most challenging part of the infrastructure, says Ceasar.

Weaving oversized ductwork around the mind-boggling curves made the job “without question the most complex project I have worked on in 34 years,” says Terry Brown, project manager for the mechanical contractor, Thermal Concepts Inc., Davie, Fla.

Construction began in January 2008. Instead of building from the bottom up, work started on the hall because it was the most complicated and then moved across the atrium to the office building. The strategy was to get the hall closed-in against weather to provide ample time for work on the wild interiors.

Frames for the five, dimensionally different sails, as tall as 40 ft and as wide as 65 ft, and 12 clouds, each 15 ft sq,...


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