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Music and technology transform the Seattle Symphony’s tiny public-outreach space into immersive experiences of imagery, mood and music. Endlessly adaptive for performances, meetings or educational events, the Octave 9: Raisbeck Music Center is "absolutely packed with tech," according to Duane Schuler, Director at Schuler Shook. "I don’t think the space has come to its full fruition yet. I think it will take a couple of years to really explore all the options."

In a 2,500 square-foot space with relatively low ceiling heights, Octave 9’s Constellation Acoustic System from Meyer Sound can simulate a soaring concert hall; then at the touch of the button, convert to an intimate lounge. The retractable, nearly 360-degree projection screen and motion-tracking cameras immerse the audience into any virtual environment, which can be married to the color-changing ambient lighting – coming together into a holistic, affecting, multi-sensory experience.

The foundation of the design is the multi-cellular, sound-deadening felt ceiling, custom designed by LMN Architects. Each cell shelters a microphone, projector, speaker, light or motion-capture camera. Precisely positioned, RGBAW light fixtures (five channels of control) are mounted on track for flexibility. Belle & Wissell provided the media engine and a library of customizable algorithms that generate video and ambient lighting in response to music and the movement of patrons across the space. Composers, musicians, and digital artists use the integrated systems to experiment and create immersive content with endless possibilities.

"The hope there was that the symphony would begin reaching out and fostering collaborations between people outside the symphony: different visual artists who would come in and work with the symphony to create these new types of performance," explained Scott Crawford, principal at LMN.

The selection of the Constellation system served as a springboard for their design of the space. "This project was a really fun opportunity to take things that we’ve learned as an architecture firm having an R&D group, and essentially use those lessons and insights to figure out how to create an R&D space for a symphony."

Voronoi growth euclidean
Multi-cellular ceiling

LMN based the ceiling design on a Vornoi diagram, a mathematical model that can explain how soap bubbles group. "We then created the geometry of the ceiling system, where every one of the technology systems in the ceiling has a certain amount of ‘pressure’ that it puts on the space around it," explained Crawford.

Using parametric modeling, LMN did not "design" the distinctive ceiling. Crawford said it "arose" out of the systems’ layouts. "It makes for a much more rich design process that can handle complexity more easily than if I had to solve all that stuff always in my head first…. It’s working through and resolving those relationships each time; after I set it up for the first time…. I can then keep adding more and more complexity onto it, so that we can get something like that ceiling with all of its complexity and relationships to the structure and the other systems, without someone have to redraw it every time something changes."

There was more than just the iterative modeling to fit each piece of AV and lighting equipment – along with HVAC and life safety – to create a tech-oriented aesthetic. "There was also the more subjective part, which was the request from the symphony to make this not feel like a black box studio where you walk in and you see all the guts, the technology, just hanging out on the ceiling. Instead, they wanted the room to have its own architectural character."

In performance mode, perimeter blackout shades cocoon the immersive experiences, but most of the time allow views in from the street to invite the curiosity of the community.

Beyond hardware requirements, parametric modeling also smoothed coordination of a dozen design and construction teams. "We would be supplied layouts by Michael [DiBlasi of Schuler Shook] for the lighting, and then we would make slight tweaks to it to get it to balance out with everything else. And so for us to be able to very quickly and nimbly deal with those changes, we could count on the expertise of our consultants to know what needed to happen. We would handle more of the layout and modeling side of things," Crawford said.

LMN then fabricated the cells of the ceiling using in-house CNC tools to cut sound-absorbing, recycled-plastic felt strips. Each has fold points, cut to form the exact angles required. The ceiling plane undulates in response to changes in the structure, varying from about 8.5 to 9.5 ft AFF. Because of that, lights are at different elevations, individually tuned for even illumination.

All the room’s a stage

Because the lights are tucked up inside, the cell walls provide shielding for the light fixtures, explained Michael DiBlasi, partner at Schuler Shook. Each sets its cell aglow when lit, providing visual interest. He headed the Minneapolis team that provided theater planning and lighting design services, with Schuler consulting and coming in for final focus.

A flexible performance space requires theatrical lighting; but there’s no "stage." The fixtures, concealed up in the ceiling, can fill the room with color, transporting the audience into the performance. They’re aimed carefully to create uniformity but eliminate light on the screens. The lighting is definitely in a supporting role: "You should look at the projections and listen to the room. Being a subliminal addition to that whole process, I think it’s crucial to making the room work well," Schuler said.

DMX control of the lighting is handled by an ETC system, which can receive cues directly from the AV system. This gives control via presets, algorithms that can pull RGB information directly from video, or individual tuning of every diode in every fixture. "You have the ability to synch up the color of the lighting with whatever is being projected onto the curved screens within the room. And this is all being handled – the coordination of all this – through an iPad system that allows you to change the Constellation settings, change the visual projection settings, as well as change the lighting," Crawford said. The lighting’s response is much more subdued than the video algorithms, avoiding the "rave" effect.

Presets provide for rehearsals, daytime meetings and educational events, as well as cocktail parties and a few moody settings. MR16s on pull-down armatures are available here and there to spotlight a bar, display or presenter.

"On the [integration] side, the composers and the technicians and software developers – everyone had to be able to grab all these pieces and make them one cohesive idea. And at the same time make it fairly easy to use," DiBlasi said. "You don’t have a software technician available 24 hours a day to use the room. It needs to have some very simple user controls for day-in, day-out operation. In a lot of ways, it’s not dissimilar to putting a production on in a theatre or the opera, but it’s on a much smaller scale, more concise. Therefore, all those details need to be a little bit more precise."

Octave 9 is part of a larger movement of established cultural institutions using more intimate settings and/or high-impact multimedia to draw families and younger audiences. (Check out the New World Symphony in Miami.) Schuler Shook, LMN, and the other design teams could only theorize on what the programming in the space might become, aiming for flexibility. "It’s a bit of a blank canvas," DiBlasi said. "It can be as simple as a conference and as involved as custom music pieces with custom projections and custom lighting, all integrated into a new composition."

Lois I. Hutchinson

About Lois I. Hutchinson

Lois I. Hutchinson is a freelance writer specializing in lighting and energy issues. She is also the content marketing mastermind behind Inverse Square LLC, a Los Angeles–based consultancy. Contact her via with your comments and any article ideas that concern the lighting community here in the Southwest.

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