The flexible performance space at National Sawdust. All photos by Floto + Warner, courtesy Bureau V.
During a recent tour of National Sawdust, a high-tech new concert hall in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, a lone musician was seated behind a piano, playing the haunting theme song from Twin Peaks. Normally, that would be the cue for some surreal Lynchian visual to begin. But after wandering inside the performance space to see where the song was coming from, it was immediately apparent that the music was actually the most normal thing about the intimate venue. For a space devoted to audio performances, it offers quite a striking visual. A beautiful, beguiling series of black lines and white shapes, metal panels delicately inlaid with kinetic patterns, run across the walls, a design scheme that suggests Zaha Hadid imagining the future of wallpaper. The “stage,” as it were, is just a flat surface, with a balcony looming above. It looks nothing like a traditional concert space or chamber hall. According to Stella Lee, a principal of architecture firmBureau V, and Raj Patel, principal of the acoustics division at the engineering firm Arup, that was by design. Given an opportunity to reimagine what a concert venue can be in the 21st century, the architects and engineers literally redesigned it from the ground up—which, considering that they had to contend with a subway line a block away, is as much a statement of fact as a cliche.
The shell of the space, formerly a brick-clad warehouse, remains intact.
Set inside a century-old former sawdust factory at the corner of Wythe and Sixth that, at one point, churned out the colored gravel found in aquariums, the $16 million National Sawdust space was the pet project of tax attorney Kevin Dolan. He helped start the non-profit that commissioned Bureau V (Lee, Laura Trevino and Peter Zuspan). After envisioning a venue that fit Dolan’s specifications—the interior volume offers the ideal amount of space to hear his new piano—the firm, working with engineers from Arup, adapted the concept to the warehouse, utilizing a black box model that fits the radical bi-level space within the large building. This was both an act of preservation, so the building’s facade fit in with the Brooklyn streetscape, and an act of acoustical engineering since, to counteract the vibrations of the nearby subway, the entire theater is suspended on hundreds of springs. The recently opened all-in-one space, which can hold up to 311 people, features a lobby bar and will soon include a restaurant helmed by James Beard award-winning chef Patrick Connolly.
To describe the design concept, Lee pointed to the custom neon and black marble chandelier hanging in the tiled lobby; like white neon wrapped around delicate marble, the pristine concert hall is encased in a rough shell. While the springs may seem like an extreme sonic solution, it’s just the beginning of the challenges and innovations that went into the building’s design. During the tour, hosted by Open House New York, Lee and Patel explained the science and vision behind this new music hall.
The lobby at National Sawdust.
Draw From a Diverse Setlist
The initial idea for the space was to create a home for musicians that allows them to compose, practice, and perform all under one roof, which discards design orthodoxy. In order to rethink the concert space, the design team referenced a variety of sources. The main 35-by-50 foot “stage” is just a flat wooden floor, allowing seating and setup to be customized and reorganized based on the size and type of ensemble. According to Patel, while it may seem different or progressive, it’s just revisiting an arrangement that would be familiar to any chamber performer from the classical period, when performers and listeners both sat on the same level and music was commissioned and composed for specific spaces. They also borrowed the jazz concept of informality and included a restaurant and bar, a step that introduced a slightly more commercial, clubby atmosphere that encouraged interaction between everyone inside the theater. At once flexible and free of barriers separating audience and performer, the space encourages experimentation. “This space looks different every single night of the week,” said Lee.
The venue is designed to be as flexible as possible.
Capture Every Sound (Except the Subway)
When engineers first surveyed the site, they discovered that, due to the building being a block away from a subway tunnel drilled into solid (and reverberating) rock, the sound of a passing train was as loud in the middle of the site as it was on the underground platform. Foot traffic in the busy Brooklyn neighborhood also didn’t help matters. The solution was to suspended the theater on isolation springs within the larger structure, a box-within-a-box that keeps the performance space separate from the outer shell.
But now that they had blocked the irritating external sound, how would they capture the sound of the musicians, from the quietest whisper to booming percussion? Most acoustic designers would simple say, “wood is good,” and line the interior with the natural material (it’s a trend that’s been repeated in the majority of concert halls built in the last half century). But, according to Patel, that wasn’t always the case. Most concert halls before the 1950’s were actually made from masonry that was later painted. Hard materials can work in this context, and Bureau V, empowered to rethink the concert hall concept, went with one that may seem particularly unorthodox: metal.
Based on an analysis of the room, the walls needed to meet a strict set of criteria and contain a precise balance of open space and reflective acoustical tile (35 percent to 65 percent, to be exact). Bureau V’s solution, devised after a series of 3D models, utilized an abstract series of patterned white metal panels (covered in the same type of cloth used on speakers and precisely anchored to avoid ringing) and open black bands. The seemingly random pattern actually makes even more sense when you consider that the black strips contain all the lighting (a mixture of fluorescent and LED bulbs) as well as all the wiring, electronics and rigging for lights and AV equipment. The only part of the performance space that’s wooden is the floor.
“It’s the amalgamation of an extremely complex set of technical criteria, a challenge even for a seasoned architecture firm that has worked on buildings like this before,” said Patel.
Be Prepared to Improvise
Many venues claim to be multipurpose, but few can offer the flexibility of National Sawdust, designed to accommodate nearly every stage of the musical process, from conception to recording. It was built for musicians, even down to a custom set of chairs that will arrive early next year. The balcony, which can hold 50, also contains a control room, and the building boasts an editing suite. Even the supposedly non-musical spaces are in play; the lobby can be utilized as a reverberation chamber and the closets are all wired to serve as impromptu vocal booths. The main space was designed to accommodate 70 performers as well as a massive screen; these criteria allow the stage to host an orchestra large enough to record a movie score live while watching the film (a circular notch in the back wall also allows engineers to run a cable out to a broadcast truck). The venue can be dimmed for a solo piano recital—the instrument and performer can be suspended above the floor on risers, and variable acoustic treatments behind the panels, basically big curtains, can be drawn to increase the reverberation in the room—or lit up for a multimedia performance. Every surface is projection mapped, so specific panels can be illuminated (some performers project subtle lines of text across the black strips that run between panels). This is a stage where the theatrical elements are well preserved.