Thursday, February 27, 2014

Real Estate Matters, or, A Tale of Two Concert Halls


Every time I'm in Davies Symphony Hall, I'm reminded of its inadequacies, both those I personally experience and those I've only read about.
  • The tiny, ugly, low-ceilinged entry area, which is shared with the box office. You feel like you're walking into a BART station, not a concert hall. It's a mean little space with no sense of grandeur.
  • The confusing layout. Ever tried to find your way to the terrace seating?
  • The blank corner of Grove & Van Ness.
  • The inadequate bathrooms. Lines out the door of the women's, especially.
  • The small elevators, which are heavily used and will be more so as the baby boomers age.
  • The uncomfortable seats, which aren't all the same size, many of which are too damn small.
  • The small and mediocre gift shop, which has hardly any CDs or books about music.
  • The parking lot occupying space that could be used for musical or administrative purposes.
  • The lack of a restaurant (and even a decent assortment of sandwiches). (Even the 80+ year old opera house has one of these!)
  • The inadequate space for administrative offices.
  • The godawful amplification system they use, when they (usually wrongly) amplify something
  • And worst of all, the still-mediocre acoustics, despite renovations.
Honestly, it's time to find a rich donor, tear it down, and start over.

And every time I'm at the War Memorial Opera House, I'm reminded of its inadequacies.
  • The really awful seats: in the orchestra, they're big enough, but about two inches off the ground, making them tough to get in and out of if you are old enough to have the money to pay for orchestra seats. In the upper reaches, the seats get tinier and tinier and the leg room gets worse and worse.
  • The tiny press room, which always overflows at a primo
  • The lack of adequate rehearsal space. Did you know that there's a big rehearsal space in Davies that is used by the opera?
  • The lack of adequate storage space for sets and other stuff. When three operas are going, it's common to see parts of sets stored outside on Grove near Franklin.
  • The inadequate theatrical systems. Even with the many upgrades when the renovations were done following the earthquake, the systems could use more upgrades.
  • The size of the pit. Even after being enlarged in the 90s, there wasn't room for the full St. Francois orchestra, and forget about using the full complement called for by the Frau and Elektra orchestras.
  • No alternative performance space, a problem that's being solved with the renovation of the Veterans Building, which will include a small theater.
  • I'm just assuming that the backstage facilities such as dressing rooms could be improved.
  • The administrative offices are...a little jammed.
At least the opera house sounds good, has a restaurant, and has public spaces that have some sense of grandeur, well, at least until you get up to balcony level. And the 90s renovations provided more or less adequate bathrooms as well.

So, given all of this....I have a plan. 

If you tore down both buildings - hold on, I know you love the opera house, but think about the issues - and used the plots occupied by both, plus Grove Street, you could build one hell of an adequate multi-use facility. You'd have to route Grove under the house, but it could be done, and of course there could be more parking (especially for disabled people) on site.

Just think of it: Lake Louise could be built over and the new building could be an extra couple of stories high, to accommodate more and better rehearsal, administrative, and function space. The opera house could be more physically comfortable and the concert hall could, uh, sound good. Of course you'd hire Yasuhisa Toyota to design the acoustics of all of the performing spaces.  (He designed Disney and Bing Halls, a superb track record more or less locally.) There could be a couple of smaller / alternative performance spaces. David Herbert would stop complaining about inadequate timpani practice space. You'd be able to sit down for a nice dinner before a concert. You could use the rest rooms without risking missing the Act II curtain. The opera's administrative offices could have a few more windows.

Maybe the Ballet could have its own performance space, so that the Opera could go year-round, but I don't think that there would be enough room for this unless we also take down the Veterans Building. (Well, that's a thought!)

Staging this plan would be tough and expensive: for the Davies demolition phase, SFS would have to go back to performing in the opera house, and they'd have to rent space elsewhere for the administrative offices. When the Opera House came down, everybody would have to find performance and administrative alternatives. (We know bad things happen when a company just stops performing for a year.) Moreover, construction would not be fast; it would take a couple of years to construct and furnish the building. It would take a lot of money ($500 million to $750 million, is my guess.) 

Years of run-outs? Oy. Maybe not. But I can dream.


Molly said...

Maybe it's just because I happen to get the chance to be in these kinds of spaces during off (or office) hours, but I always wonder why there isn't a really good coffee shop and/or destination restaurant worked into them as a matter of course so that people are in the habit of visiting them and getting comfortable in them. A beautiful space + I know where the parking and the bathrooms are + I have passed that ad for XYZ 10 times at this point = it's now Thursday and I've just conveniently planned date night on my coffee break! I just feel like it's a missed opportunity, but surely there is a good reason why this is not done.

Michael Walsh said...

Can we redo Zellerbach while we're at it?

Lisa Hirsch said...

Those are great ideas.

Walt Disney Concert Hall does contain a destination restaurant, and you can get into the small, buffet-style cafe without having a concert ticket, too. A good coffee shop would be great.

In the case of the War Memorial, there is a (surprisingly good!) buffet restaurant, but it's in the basement. Why Davies has such terrible food options (sandwiches & salads only) escapes me, but it is true that the coffee culture now is way different from when it was designed in the late 1970s.

Lisa Hirsch said...


Mike, yeah. Groan. The East Bay is seriously in need of um ONE good concert venue that's bigger than Hertz Hall.

Michael Strickland said...

Please leave the San Francisco Opera House alone, since I love just about everything in that building, including the tiny, terrible press room, Davies Hall would be a perfect teardown and start all over again project, as would Zellerbach at UC Berkeley.

Lisa Hirsch said...

I'm tempted to ask Jon Finck to comment on this proposal. :)

Anonymous said...

The inadequacy of Davies' gift shop - size and contents - is what has struck me most forcibly when I've visited the big orchestral halls in other cities.

The acoustics in the Opera House are not consistently good. The orchestra sides, which is where I sat when SFS played there, are dead. Might be better for opera, but I don't know.

Lisa Hirsch said...

The Davies gift shop is truly sad, although the last time I was at Avery Fischer Hall, the American Symphony Orchestra was performing - and they had set up a table in the lobby, very high-schoolish, to sell recordings and schwag.

That's true about the Opera House acoustics. I've sat in almost every section of the theater for one thing or another and can expound at length. The big problem with orchestra sides during opera performances isn't dead sound but the damn echo of orchestral sound.

Dr.B said...

Kennedy Center is an interesting space with restaurants, stores, parking garage, opera house, stroll along the Potomac, concert hall and more. Only the concert hall is ghastly.