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Avery Fisher Hall (David Geffen Hall) - Max Abromovitz
Kelly Franklin · ARC 6355
Photo by D. Ramey Logan
A MID-CENTURY MODERN TAKE ON CLASSIC
Full height glass windows
create permeability between
the courtyard and interior
The Hall’s spacious lobbies afford wraparound views of Lincoln Center campus.
The grand promenade is frequently used for events.
Its style has been described as “1960’s Cultural Acropolis Classique”
BUILDING AUDITORIUM STAGE HOUSE
1 2 2 2
from Google Earth from Beranek, Leo. Concert Halls & Opera Houses: How They Sound. Woodbury: Acoustical Society of America. 1996.
720,300 81,000VOLUME 3
ft 230 3
• 1,640 ground floor
• 348 first tier
• 364 second tier
• 380 third tier
Home to New York Philharmonic, as well as host to a number of visiting orchestras.
Leonard Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts among the first televised performance from the hall.
Miles Davis – 1964; Simon & Garfunkel – 1967; Queen – 1975.
Hall is frequent location for graduation ceremonies and other events.
NOT JUST A SYMPHONY HALL
Plans for major renovation of the auditorium in 2019 to make it a more adaptable performance space.
The New York Philharmonic
Architect Max Abromovitz designed a new International style home
for New York’s symphony orchestra. Leo Beranek was acoustical
consultant. He recommended a “shoebox” design with narrowly-
spaced parallel sides to seat 2,400. The plans called for placing
the farthest seats an intimate 138 feet from the stage, with low
balconies putting the highest seat only 45 feet above the stage.
Critics clamored for the seating equivalent of Carnegie Hall (then
scheduled for demolition ), and capacity was increased to 2,738
seats late in the design stage, necessitating changes to the
building’s volume and shape that invalidated much of the
Avery Fisher Hall
Renamed after a prominent
benefactor involved in making hi-fi
sound equipment who donated
$10M to support a major redesign.
19632M of adjustments
made to try and
None of the
attempts to tune
the hall worked
The seating capacity is too large
and the sidewalls are too far apart to
provide early reflections to the center seats. The
ceiling is high, increasing reverberation time, but
the clouds are too high to adequately reinforce
early reflections. The bass is weak because the
very large stage does not adequately reinforce the
low string instruments.
R.C. Ehle, Music Teacher International Magazine article
The orchestra sounded dry
and lifeless. Rather than being
immersed in the sound, audience
members felt it emanate from the stage.
There was no sense of being in a room filled
with music. There were dead spots, and too
little bass compared to treble. Some seat
locations heard echoes, others barely heard
anything. If it was bad for the audience, it
was worse for the musicians who could not
hear what they or others were playing.
Bruce Bliven, “A Better Sound” in The New Yorker
The hall got scathing reviews:
Cyril Harris, an acoustics expert,
worked with project architect Philip
Johnson and a major renovation that
included demolishing the inside of the
hall and rebuilding a new hall within
the outside framework and façade.
This redesign achieved a warmer, more
But the brasses remained bright, and
the bass was weak. Musicians also
reported problems hearing each other.
The reconstruction of
Philharmonic Hall is said to
have changed the acoustics of the
space tremendously. The resulting
sound was hailed as by critics as
“sumptuous,” “warm,” “full,”
“voluptuous,” and “lively.” These
were ways of describing an effect
that Harris had been aiming for all
along: the ability to feel the music in
the floor and around oneself, the
feeling of being engulfed in sound.
Josh Hudelson, A Musical Miscarriage
Addressing the Stage Acoustics
Solid maple concave surfaces were installed on the
stage’s side walls and ceiling to help focus sound from
different parts of the stage evenly toward the audience
and the performers themselves. 3” fiberglass ”pillows”
were added to the sides to deaden vibrations.
Retractable glass shelves were placed above the pillows
to allow tuning. A stepped oval glass reflector was added
above the stage to direct sound toward the audience, and
a small platform was placed at the rear of the stage to
provide adjustable sound control for performers.
Hall Renamed. $500 Million Overhaul Initiated.
The hall was rechristened The David Geffen Hall in September, 2015,
when the donor gave $100 million toward a planned $500 million
interior overhaul to commence in 2019. The goal is to modify the space
to serve as a multi-purpose performance hall, with a reconfigurable
performance area (thrust stage, proscenium, theater in the round) ,
enhanced acoustics, better aesthetics, a socially-inviting foyer, more
rehearsal space, and possibly more seating.
New York Philharmonic
pursued returning to Carnegie
Hall. Talks abandoned.
Abramovitz changed the design of the
balconies, having them dramatically sweep
down toward the stage rather than gradually
step-down as Beranek had recommended and
the building committee had approved.
IN MUSIC, TERRACED DYNAMICS ARE “A Sudden or Dramatic Shift”
By bulging the side walls of the hall out into
a barrel shape, the architect managed to fit
258 more seats onto the main floor. But
these concave walls created major
AS DESIGNED AS BUILT
To address the steeper slope of the balconies, Beranek added more
individually adjustable reflective ceiling clouds, extending over most
of the audience (a change that had disastrous acoustical effects).
To compensate for the concave walls, Beranek specified wooden diffusers on the
walls to minimize the focusing effect . For budgetary reasons, these were omitted.
“Examination of the plan and section reveals
several anomalies. The main floor rake was
shallow, the balcony overhangs excessive,
and the rear wall is concave in both plan and
section, which encouraged echoes back to
the stage. The curvature on the side walls
meant that there some focusing at the rear of
the stalls, and that many stall seats received
no lateral reflections. Finally, a peculiarity of
the stage design is its remarkable size,
enough for about 170 musicians, which
probably left orchestras too widely dispersed.
But many of these features were found
elsewhere, and... even in combination they
do not seem sufficient to produce such
Barron’s analysis of the 1962 acoustical problems…
Michael Barron. Auditorium Acoustics in Architectural Design. Taylor & Francis, 1993, p. 95.
LOOK OUT FOR
The major fault, which was soon isolated, related to the behavior
of the suspended reflectors ("clouds"). Owing to the small size
and regularity of the double layer of reflector panels, the array did
not reflect bass sound. In addition, the low percentage of open
area (less than 50% in the Philharmonic Hall vs. the
recommended minimum open of 70%) created a poorly coupled
acoustic space above the array, inhibiting reverberation. The
problematic clouds were removed in 1969 and replaced with a
stepped ceiling. In 1992, solid maple concave surfaces were
installed on the side walls and suspended from the stage ceiling.
• Low ambient noise
• Reasonable acoustic gain
• Reverberation time of ≈ 2 seconds
• Avoid artifacts such as echo
• Delayed reflection
• Sound shadow
• Sound concentration
• Size (dimensions, volume, capacity)
• Surface layout
• Materials (textured vs. flat; absorbent vs. reflective)
• Shoebox is best for music to
avoid flutter echoes.
• Splayed side walls reflect
sound to the rear of the hall.
• Splays should be avoided in
concert halls, but if must
splay, 30°- 60°
• Ideally, depth = height (2x
height is max. to avoid
• Add reflecting surfaces to
underside of balcony.
• Place absorptive panels on
the front of balcony parapets.
Adapted from Momin Zaki, Auditorium Acoustics.
• Audiences provide most of the
absorption, so room surfaces can
be relatively reflective.
• Ceiling reflectors (“clouds”) direct sound to the audience. Length
and width of cloud panels should be at least 5x wavelength of lowest
frequency to be reflected.
• Ideal height = ⅓ to ½ of room width.
• Avoid concave ceiling surfaces to prevent sound foci.
• A sloping (raked) floor allows less absorption, and
improves sight lines.
• Generally, slope of performance hall should be at
least 8°, but not more than 35°.
• Concave shapes focus sound. Avoid concave rear
• Side walls should avoid parallelism . Tilt or splay
wall surfaces to direct and diffuse reflected.
• Stage and front of hall should be reflective; rear
should be absorptive.
• Impacts reverberation and
loudness. Aim for 275 cubic
feet per seat (220 –380 range).
• The maximum recommended distance from
back seat to stage is 130 feet.
• Audiences provide most of the absorption, so room surfaces
can be relatively reflective.
• Reflective front stage area provides strong early reflections
that enhance sound. Conversely, late reflections and
reverberations from rear walls produce echoes.
Adapted from Momin Zaki, Auditorium Acoustics.
The acoustical failings of the initial1962 New York Philharmonic hall can be attributed to:
• Sharply angled overhanging balconies trapped sound and created dead spots.
The stage’s sound issues after the1976 redesign were caused by:
• The curvature of the side walls which focused sound to the rear and inhibited lateral reflections. The wooden diffusers which were specified
to address this issue were omitted for budgetary reasons.
• The small regular “clouds” in the ceiling did not reflect bass. Additionally, the lack of open space above the cloud array
• Adding more seats reduced the volume to 230 cu. ft. per audience member, which is at the low end for
concert hall and may have impacted loudness and reverberation time adversely.
• Lack of variety in shape and material of stage ceiling diffusers.
• Need for additional diffusers on the side of the stage.
The operative word being “designed”. The architect and sound
engineer fell victim to public pressure to expand the seating
within the initial footprint and budget constraints. The late
changes in the form and layout destroyed the hall’s acoustics.
Although it may be a chimera, for the next phase of its existence, the New York Philharmonic Hall, a.k.a Avery Fisher
Hall, a.k.a David Geffen Hall will attempt to become a chameleon – expanding its remit to serve as a multi-use
performing arts center, perhaps with a larger capacity, certainly with a more flexible stage configuration, and
definitely with a better acoustical experience than it has delivered for much of its storied 50-year history. Whether it
is possible to serve all of those purposes in an envelope that has never fully succeeded as a symphony hall is a
challenging puzzle for the next set of architects.
As an object lesson in
“what not to do”, the
sad tale of the 9
different attempts to
right the initial wrong
The New York Philharmonic was the among the first
concert halls designed with modern acoustical principles.
Architecturally, the hall is a paragon of mid-century modern design, and from that perspective, it was successful from
the outset. The modern design era was premised on openness, adaptability, and democratization. The transparency of
the design of the Avery Fisher hall helped join the music experience on the interior with the outside life of the city.
Younger crowds gathered in the plaza – it became a “scene”. But the way orchestral music “should” be experienced is
deeply rooted in a tradition that historically dictated a fixed set of design requirements. Says Edward Rothstein of the
New York Times, “Other musics visit the concert hall; they are not at home in it.”.
Abramovitz, Max: “Oral History,” Lincoln Center for the Performing
Arts, Inc. Oral History Project; begun June 20, 1990.
Ashton, Allan. Acoustic Architecture. Honors Thesis, Brown
Bliven, Bruce: “Annals of Architecture, A Better Sound,” The New
Yorker; November 8, 1976.
Beranek, Leo L.. Concert and Opera Halls: How They Sound,
Woodbury, New York: Acoustical Society of America. 1996.
Ehle, Robert C., "What Does It Take to Make a Good Hall for Music?"
Music Teacher International Magazine.
K. Agency – Floor Plan Drawings. http://thekagency.com/event-
Harris, Cyril M.: “Oral History.” Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, Inc.
Oral History Project; begun Dec. 18, 1990.
Hudelson, Josh. A Musical Miscarriage: Philharmonic Hall and the
Soundscape of Midtown Manhattan. NYU Ph.D. candidate
Pogrebin, Robin. “Philharmonic to Give Home a New Interior.” The New
York Times; May 20, 2004.
Rothstein, Edward: "If Music Is the Architect, the Results May Be Less
Than Melodious." The New York Times, May 22, 2004.
Thompson, Emily. The Soundscape of Modernity: Architectural Acoustics
and the Culture of Listening in America, 1900-1933, Cambridge: MIT
Zaki, Momin. Auditoriuum Acoustics.