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The back of the house moves to the fore Lyrical coda: Opera house's addition will create spaces for performers and an exciting view for passers-by.


For years, the Lyric Opera House has been Baltimore's Unfinished Symphony.

Its owner, the nonprofit Lyric Foundation, remodeled the interior and added a new lobby and loading dock in the 1980s. But board members never had enough money to make all the improvements they wanted, and it's had a curiously unfinished look as a result.

Now the foundation is finally ready to complete the composition. Set for construction starting this fall is a three-story, $2.4 million addition that will provide back-of-the-house features left out of previous expansions, including rehearsal space, dressing rooms and offices. It also will add a richness and complexity missing from the bland, brick appendages tacked on in the past.

The design by Richter Cornbrooks Gribble is so striking that it was singled out for an honor this month in the annual awards program sponsored by the American Institute of Architects' local chapter -- the only "unbuilt" project to be recognized.

Judges said the addition evokes the "celebration of arrival" one expects from a major performance hall and that it had the potential to transform the block, "like a glamorous marquee, into a dramatic civic focal point."

If the spirit of energy and vitality evident in the original design can be maintained through the construction period, it will add life not only to the building but also to the entire Mount Royal Cultural Center.

Designed by T. Henry Randall and modeled after the Neues Gewandhaus in Leipzig, Germany, the Lyric has always been a multipurpose hall, serving a variety of tenants. The latest addition marks the continuation of a multiphase expansion and modernization program launched after the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra announced plans in the 1970s to build its own home, the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall.

The improvements were intended to make the Lyric more attractive and competitive as a setting for Broadway-style touring shows as well as concerts and the annual productions of the Baltimore Opera Company, to fill the dates vacated by the symphony. The strategy has worked quite well for the 2,600-seat theater, which will turn 101 on Tuesday and is busier than ever.

For the most part, the earlier additions were designed to please patrons. The goal of the current project is to make the theater more attractive to performers as well, by improving conditions backstage.

Given the nature of the project, this could have been one of the more mundane additions to the Lyric. What's particularly commendable about the design is the way the architects have attempted to make it memorable -- a building that will enhance the theater-going experience for patrons as well as the performers and theater staffers who will use it day to day.

Richter Cornbrooks Gribble has been the architect for the entire modernization campaign at the Lyric -- a 15-year commission. The design team for this project is headed by Jonathan Fishman, a Yale-educated architect and Baltimore native who joined the firm in 1994 as director of design, after stints with Ayers Saint Gross in Baltimore and Hartman Cox in Washington. Other team members are David Perkins and Peter Schwab. The lead architects for the previous Lyric additions were Charles Richter and Ron Gribble, who have retired from the firm -- one explanation for the new design approach.

Magic of the theater

The site is a vacant parcel bracketed by two additions from the 1980s -- the main lobby to the west and the loading dock on the east. Occupied by a few scruffy pine trees, it permits views through to the south wall of the old Lyric Opera House.

Richter's master plan for expansion always called for this gap to be filled in; an early model showed a three-story section clad in brick consistent with the rest of the Mount Royal Avenue facade.

But when he became involved, Mr. Fishman said, he saw an opportunity to use the latest addition to make a break from the past and convey a side of the theater patrons don't normally see.

Because most of the original theater shell has been covered over and the 1980s additions are so unarticulated, he said, the complex has no specific architectural character.

"We were really dealing with a blank slate," he said. "We didn't want to just match the existing building, with respect to the buff brick. The Lyric is so staid. The idea was to get some of the magic of the theater into this building."

Playing off banality

To a large degree, the addition derives its strength from the way the architects play off the banality and sterility of the 1980s sections. In effect, they found a way to take the Lyric's greatest aesthetic shortcoming -- the monotonous beige wall surface -- and use it to their advantage, making it the backdrop against which the more intriguing infill building could pop out.

The architects accomplished their objective by treating the buff brick appendages as "bookends," then filling the gap between them with a three-story structure that has a completely different look.

Since the buff-colored bricks are solid and heavy, they reasoned, the greatest contrast would come from an infill building featuring materials that are light and transparent. Such materials also could be used to convey some of the excitement of the theater by literally acting as a screen or scrim to reveal activity inside.

The first level will contain an entrance lobby, box office, storage space and offices for the Lyric Foundation. The second level, which corresponds to stage level, will have a "green room," or performers' lounge, 12 dressing rooms and a large rehearsal room that can double as a setting for fund-raisers and parties. Level three contains offices for the Baltimore Opera Company.

Since the building fills a niche, it has only one exterior wall. The architects designed it to follow the curve of Mount Royal Avenue. But instead of matching the brick of the other additions, they made the outer wall a collage of sorts that expresses the different areas inside.

At street level are windows for after-hours ticket sales and a staff entrance. Across the top are more windows for the opera company offices. The main feature is a floor-to-ceiling window wall for the second-level rehearsal room. Besides letting actors look out, it will allow the public to look in.

"Usually, rehearsal rooms are buried in the bowels of the theater," Mr. Fishman said. "We wanted to take the one element of this building that had the most opportunity for public interaction and put it on the outside. The notion is that there would be many times, especially at night, when people could drive by and watch actors rehearsing. It's almost as if the rehearsal room is a big, cantilevered catwalk that you can see from the street."

The rehearsal room should be especially attractive to performers, he said, since the operable windows will let in fresh air and natural light. Meanwhile, passersby will be able to see activity inside and hear music drifting from the open windows.

Another key to the building's visual impact is the new palette of colors and materials. Instead of continuing with the buff-colored brick, the architects proposed a combination of glass, metal and brick.

'Full of verve'

"The facade is intended to be light, full of verve and movement, both to express the energy and excitement of theater and to stand in contrast to the ponderous facades of the 1980s additions," Mr. Fishman said.

The goal was to develop an architectural language that evokes images found in most theaters, such as catwalks and exposed ceiling grids and rigging for lights and equipment, because that's what the addition is all about. "It contains the back-of-the-house stuff, not the formal front," he said. "It's a working, nuts-and-bolts building."

To integrate the new building with its surroundings, the designers extended its metal framework to engage and envelop the existing building and provide a marquee-like armature that will support giant letters spelling out "LYRIC" on both the Mount Royal Avenue and Maryland Avenue sides.

The result is a building that is for the theater and about the theater, and whose very tectonics are derived from theater construction. It's also a building made of layered planes -- a reference to the layered planes of sets and scenery in a stage production.

The metaphor is clear: Instead of designing another section that presents a blank face to the world, the architects have lifted the ++ curtain to provide a glimpse of the performers inside, just as the glass lobby to the west offers a glimpse of the theater patrons congregating before and after performances.

Ideally, the two sets of openings will work together along Mount Royal Avenue as a sequence of windows on the theater -- not-so-subtle reminders that "all the world's a stage." It's an organization that can pull together the disparate elements of the Mount Royal Avenue facade and add a sense of logic that makes it understandable for the first time since the expansion process began.

Architecture of lightness

In recent weeks, the architects have been working to refine the design and select the final materials for the collage they've assembled. Copper, Mr. Fishman's first choice for metal, turned out to be prohibitively expensive, so they have explored a mixture of green-tinted glass, aluminum panels painted with a copper finish, and two shades of brick.

This fine-tuning of details is a critical stage in the process, because it's the point at which they can either strengthen the design or cause it to fall apart.

One source of concern is the architects' decision to use brick in the infill, as cladding for the wall from which the rehearsal room window will project. They say it will add a sense of solidity to the composition and reinforce its layered look.

But any use of brick in the infill, even if it's different in color from the buff elsewhere, also threatens to detract from the "architecture of lightness" that is being explored. Since the basic idea of the design is to make a break from the existing building, with its brick bookends, practically any material other than brick would seem to work better.

This is not the end of the changes. As part of this project, the Lyric Foundation wants to build a north stair that will echo details of the 1894 theater's east wall, the only side still visible from the street. Board members have also talked about adding a marquee above the entrance, adding another level of offices above the opera company's space, and expanding the backstage area on the Maryland Avenue side.

In each case, the challenge for the architects will be to find the proper balance of light and shadow, solid and void, to suit the program and the evolving composition. Their decision to adopt a different design vocabulary at this point is a risk, but one that was worth taking.

As the Lyric has demonstrated throughout its history, a theater must grow and change in order to survive. This addition, so rooted in theatrical tradition, is more than just a window into the theater of today. It also shows how the Lyric can move into the future, without losing sight of its past.

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