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Bringing world-class acoustics to the Isabel

Joe Solway, an acoustician with international design consulting firm Arup, holds a starter's pistol that is being used to test the acoustics of the performance hall at the Isabel Bader Centre for the Performing Arts. (University Communications)

This article, printed in the August edition of the Gazette, is the second of a series featuring some of the people and firms behind the planning, design and construction of the Isabel Bader Centre for the Performing Arts. Copies of the newspaper are available around campus.

By Andrew Carroll, Gazette editor

While the soon-to-be completed Isabel Bader Centre for Performing Arts is a visual splendor, Joe Solway is more interested in how it sounds.

And as impressive as it looks, the Isabel perhaps sounds even better.

That’s due in large part to the team at Arup, international design consulting firm, led by acoustician Joe Solway, whose job it is to ensure that the Isabel has world-class acoustics.

Enveloped and surrounded by sound within the cozy confines of the performance hall, the crown jewel of the Isabel, Mr. Solway is confident that anyone attending a concert or performance will be thoroughly impressed. It will not be like anything else they have experienced in Kingston.

“There’s just a level of acoustical quality that we have achieved, in terms of the audience experience, the level of envelopment, the level of intimacy – when people come in here and listen they will just be blown away ” he says.

It’s a painstaking process. When approaching the acoustics of a building like the Isabel, Mr. Solway has to take in countless minute details. It takes not only a refined ear but a clinical mind as well. There is so much sound that we take for granted – mechanical systems, rehearsals in the next room, vibrations in the structure of the facility, airflow.

An acoustician takes all of this into account. And it isn’t just about the performance hall.

“From the beginning we’re saying ‘Okay, what is this building going to sound like: What can you hear as you enter the lobby, what kind of acoustic is there when you are in the classrooms, when you go into the auditorium, when you go into the studio theatre?’” Mr. Solway explains. “Each of these rooms, thinking about what is the acoustics inside the spaces, what can you hear from the building systems, the mechanical systems, the lighting systems. Can you hear them? If so, what kind of response do they elicit? What can you hear in the surrounding spaces, can you hear the classroom next door, how loud is it, how do we control that? Can we hear the outside?”

The acoustic goals for the building were formulated in consultation with Queen’s administration and faculty, from the first planning meetings back in 2008. Then Mr. Solway and Arup translated these goals into design criteria that the architects and designers, Snøhetta and N45, could build upon.

It has been a collaborative, interpretive process, One that Mr. Solway feels has been very successful.

And while this applies to each room in the building, the collaboration perhaps is best embodied in the creation of the performance hall.

“We worked together from beginning to say ‘This is what we need out of it acoustically in terms of its volume, its shape, its form, its finishes, and Snøhetta and N45 took all that information and then cleverly embedded the very architectural DNA of the room with those requirements,” he says. “So there’s no conflict with the architecture and what we are trying to do acoustically.”

In those early discussions with the university it became clear that the performance hall would come with world-class acoustics. The quality, it is hoped, will attract the world’s finest musicians and draw audiences from across Canada, not just Kingston.

When entering the performance hall the first thing that strikes the visitor is the uniquely-designed walls. The layers of wood with ledges jutting out here and there serve a dual purpose and were borne from the collaborative approach to the project.

“We had an ideal opportunity for marrying together Snøhetta’s desire to reflect the local limestone geology in the architecture with the acoustical work for some surface texture that diffuses sound,” Mr. Solway says. “It was a wonderful interactive process where we sketched out some ideas acoustically how it could work and then came up with a shared interpretive model that we bounced back and forth between ourselves and them. And then came up with something that visually represented what they wanted in terms of the local limestone geology that acoustically also deals with what we need in terms of sound diffusion.”

The result of this harmony of architecture and acoustics, along with testing every single item in the hall that creates noise in Arup’s Sound Lab, will be the sought-after world-class experience.

The hall itself is physically isolated from the rest of the building. Walk around the outside of the hall and there is a little black line in the floor which marks the separation like a border on a map. This ensures that any sound, any vibration, in the rest of the building will not transmit into the performance hall, Mr. Solway says.

With the official opening mere weeks away, the excitement surrounding this gem on the shore of Lake Ontario isn’t lost on Mr. Solway.

“It almost feels like I’m going to my kid’s graduation. They’re going off into the world. I’ve watched this thing over the last six years and now get to see it go off to university. To go off into the world and be used and just have a whole new life outside the design phase,” he says. “It’s quite emotional, releasing this thing out into the world and it’s really exciting.”

The Isabel Bader Centre for the Performing Arts was made possible by a transformational gift from Alfred Bader (Sc’45, Arts’46, MSc’47, LLD’86) and his wife, Isabel (LLD’07) as well as the financial backing of the federal and provincial governments, the City of Kingston and additional philanthropic support.