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Cultural landmark for suburbia; Architecture: The BSO and other groups plan to perform at the Montgomery County's graceful arts center when it is complete.


In their quest to show that they have come of age, many suburban communities are building performing arts centers that are essentially knockoffs of their urban counterparts, as if that were the best way to confer "big league" status on a growing edge city.

But the $89 million arts center planned for Montgomery County is likely to stand out because its designers chose to celebrate the characteristics that make it undeniably suburban, starting with its tranquil, 11-acre setting off Rockville Pike.

The result promises to be an instant cultural landmark for a county that doesn't have many: a gracefully curving music hall with undulating roofline and rounded walls.

"It's a lyrical form that harkens to the rolling landscape and the lyricism of music," said Alan Joslin, principal of William Rawn Associates of Boston, the architect for the project.

Inside and out, the building explores the juxtaposition of straight lines and curves -- "the lyrical and the rigorous," added architect William Rawn. "That, in a sense, is what music is all about."

Montgomery County officials yesterday unveiled renderings for the 2,000-seat concert hall and educational facility, which is due to open by late 2004 on the grounds of the Strathmore Hall Arts Center at 10701 Rockville Pike in North Bethesda.

The unveiling came less than two weeks after the County Council agreed to provide half of the funds needed to build the project, which will be a second home for the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and the permanent address for several Montgomery County arts organizations.

The state legislature agreed this spring to cover the rest of the building costs.

Construction is expected to begin by late 2002, after all of the design work is complete.

Tanglewood veterans

The arts center will be the first building in Maryland designed by William Rawn Associates, architect of the award-winning Seiji Ozawa Concert Hall at Tanglewood in Lenox, Mass. Grimm & Parker Architects of Calverton is the associate architect. Kirkegaard and Associates of Chicago is the acoustical designer, and Theatre Projects Consultants of Ridgefield, Conn., is the theater designer.

"The world-class design team has given us a world-class arts facility," said County Executive Douglas M. Duncan.

"The benefits of such a center will be measured in decades, not just in years."

The symphony is delighted with the architects' work, said President John Gidwitz.

"I think a very beautiful shape will evolve and a very wonderful experience will exist for the people who use this building," he said. "The placement of spaces has been done with great sensitivity, and people will be able to enjoy the beauty of the site both from the windows and outdoors. There's a series of terraces that will be wonderful in good weather."

The new building will share the sloping site with a former neo-Georgian family mansion that has been transformed to an arts center.

Besides the concert hall, there will be an educational facility with classrooms, offices and rehearsal space.

From the beginning, the challenge was determining how to locate the building without overwhelming the parklike setting or the mansion. The design team decided to set it back from the street, on the steepest part of the property.

The building will be connected by a pedestrian bridge to a 2,000-car garage next to the Grosvenor Metro station

Peaceful ambience

The architects said they expect most concert-goers to arrive by car or Metro and walk across the footbridge to the concert hall.

The idea, they said, is that once people cross the bridge, they are leaving behind the world of cars and traffic and entering a more peaceful, natural setting.

The very act of taking a meandering walk through the park, they said, should help put people in a proper frame of mind to enjoy a concert or other performance.

The renderings show the concert hall and the educational facility rising from a common platform nestled into the hillside. Both structures will be clad in clear glass and a cream-colored limestone, with lead-coated copper roofs whose shapes echo the curves of the rolling hills beyond. Both structures will rise no higher than the Georgian mansion to the west.

On the south side of the property, the glass and stone facade of the educational facility has been designed to present a civic face to the garage and community beyond.

On the north side is a five-story lobby for the concert hall, with a tilted glass wall that overlooks the park below. The wall is a symbolic portal into the hall and one of its most identifiable forms. This is where crowds are expected to linger before and after concerts to enjoy the views.

Inside, the hall has three tiers of balconies above the orchestra level. The management could open all levels for a major performance, or just the orchestra level for a concert that draws a smaller crowd.

European inspiration

The concert hall is essentially rectangular, a shape that traditionally yields the best acoustics. But working closely with acoustic expert R. Lawrence Kirkegaard, the architects have introduced curving balconies and rounded corners to help give the space a sense of warmth and intimacy. Inspired by European concert halls, they also placed some seats behind the stage to reinforce the sense of community inside the hall.

"We wanted to create the impression that the audience is embracing the stage, coming together for a night of music," Rawn said. "We wanted to give the sense that the orchestra and the audience are all together."

A sense of warmth

The hall will have cushioned seats and wood floors and trim, again for a sense of warmth. Plexiglas ceiling baffles, draperies and other materials can be adjusted to create ideal conditions for amplified or non-amplified music.

BSO Music Director Yuri Temirkanov was instrumental in urging the designers to move away from traditional forms, Gidwitz said.

"The architects fused two opposing principles with splendid success," he said.

"People will see gracious curves and the audience embracing the stage, and yet the shape is a traditional rectangular room featuring a narrow width that is ideal for a concert hall.

"There's an interrelationship between the performers and the audience. It's very emphatically one room."

Rawn and Joslin said they are grateful that state and county officials opted to fund the project, even after the construction budget exceeded early estimates.

Eliot Pfanstiehl, executive director of Strathmore Hall, said he believes the council members recognized what it would do for their constituents.

"I think the council has taken a look at this and said this is going to be a hallmark for the county -- and there are so few.

"They wanted to be associated with something special. They wanted a new language for the county."

By recognizing the best qualities of the Strathmore Hall property, and building on them, Rawn and Joslin provided it.

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