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Chicago Symphony Center – Orchestra Hall

Chicago, Illinois, USA


Skidmore Owings & Merrill, Architect; Chicago, IL
Fisher/Dachs Associates, Inc., Theatre Consultant; New York, NY

Project Awards

1998 AIA Chicago - Distinguished Building Award, Special Recognition
1998 Building Design & Construction - Building Team Project Awards, Merit Award
1997 Form & Function - Outstanding Project Award
1994 AIA Chicago - Interior Architecture Award, Preservation Honor Award
1994 AIA Chicago - Distinguished Building Award, Certificate of Merit
1982 AIA National - Distinguished Building Award

Project Description

Since it opened in 1904, Orchestra Hall in Chicago, Illinois, has been renowned for an intimate sound quality but has lacked the desired reverberation and frequency balance for orchestral music. Focusing geometries and tight balconies also contributed to a notably different acoustic character at various locations in the hall. Within months of the hall’s opening, the sound-transparent ceiling of the stage was covered with canvas; over the years, painting of this canvas resulted in significant focusing conditions.

The first major acoustical renovation was done in the 1960s, when the ceiling of the stage and roughly 50% of the ceiling at the audience was changed to perforated metal. A diffusive pattern of angled plaster was installed above the stage ceiling and one section of the audience area. The rest of the audience area was opened to the 8-foot high truss space. Padding was added to chairs at the upper gallery and increased in all other seats, so the net improvement of the architectural changes was not as much as had been anticipated. Ultimately, space limitations and a desire to further improve the hall’s acoustics prompted the 1990s renovation and expansion of the facility.

The major change to the Hall in the recent renovation is the increase in the volume of the space by almost 50%. The original roof located 8 feet above the ceiling was replaced with new steel trusses and a new concrete ceiling located approximately 25 feet above the original roof at the stage proscenium. New walls in the upper volume are constructed of 12″ to 16″ thick masonry and the visual ceiling was renovated to incorporate a new air delivery system and increase the weight of all plaster elements. Lower walls at the stage and audience seating were rebuilt to increase the mass and modify shaping to reduce echoes and focusing. The combination of the added volume and new, heavier materials has improved reverberation time and low frequency response to create a warmer, more even sound at all locations in the space.

Additional improvements include the introduction of a full orchestra riser system and an acoustic canopy to improve ensemble conditions on stage and improve direct sound and early reflections for the audience. The size of the canopy was kept to a minimum for architectural reasons, and works in combination with reflective panels at the sides of the stage above the perforated metal ceiling. The mechanical system was also upgraded to provide more air and reduce background noise.

Orchestra Hall is now a worthy home for a remarkable orchestra. These improvements, needed to position the Hall for the next century, were accomplished while maintaining the character and intimacy that have made the Hall a well-loved landmark at the heart of the City of Chicago.

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