Russell Johnson, Acoustician Who Revolutionized Concert Hall Design, Dies at 83

Classic Arts News   Russell Johnson, Acoustician Who Revolutionized Concert Hall Design, Dies at 83
Russell Johnson, one of the most influential figures in the modern history of concert hall design and the acoustician for some of the world's most admired new classical music venues, passed away on Tuesday, August 7 at his home in New York City. He was 83 years old and had continued working until literally the day before he died.

"We were discussing design ideas and planning for the future," said Tateo Nakajima, managing director of Artec Consultants, the firm Johnson founded in 1970, to The Philadelphia Inquirer, "and as far as we can tell, he went home from work [on Monday] and just didn't wake up."

Born in Berwick, Pennsylvania in 1923, Johnson studied architecture at Carnegie Mellon and Yale Universities. He worked at the Boston-area acoustical consulting firm Bolt, Beranek and Newman from 1954 until 1970, the year that he founded Artec.

As The New York Times observes, Johnson was responsible for two of the major developments in 20th-century concert hall design.

The first is a return to the traditional "shoebox" shape of such classic, acoustically rich auditoriums as Boston's Symphony Hall and Amsterdam's Concertgebouw. This was a reaction against the many concert halls built in the three decades after World War II whose sound was disappointing or worse. Many of those venues were designed using the most advanced science and mathematics available at the time. (Acoustical science was a very young field at that point.) Johnson always considered what he did more art than science: as he told the Times seven years ago, "The math today may not help you very much. And if you believe some math that's wrong, you can get into trouble very quickly."

Johnson's second innovation, widely considered his trademark, is the use of adjustable elements within an auditorium, such as a canopy over the stage that can be raised and lowered and acoustical resonating chambers along the walls whose doors can be opened or closed to varying degrees. These elements are meant to make a venue flexible, with acoustics that can be set, based on the number and type of performers and repertoire at any given event, at any level from cathedral-style reverberance to the clarity and dryness of a lecture hall.

(On at least one occasion — Simon Rattle conducting the Berlin Philharmonic in Heiner Goebbels's Surrogate Cities at the 2003 Lucerne Festival — the hall's settings were changed in mid-performance, as per the composer's wishes.)

The venues for which Johnson is most celebrated are probably Meyerson Symphony Hall in Dallas, the Culture and Congress Center in Lucerne (Switzerland), and Symphony Hall in Birmingham (England).

Surely the most complicated and controversial case among Johnson's recent projects was Verizon Hall at the Kimmel Center in Philadelphia. The auditorium was purpose-built as a home for the Philadelphia Orchestra, with more suitable sound than that at the orchestra's longtime venue, the Academy of Music (which was built to be an opera house).

Critics came from far and wide for the opening of Verizon Hall in December of 2001, and many of them left unimpressed; one writer notoriously described the auditorium as "an acoustical Sahara." As it happened, construction was not yet finished, and the resonating chambers along the hall's sides were filled with building supplies. And for some months after work had been completed, the walls of those chambers were hung with curtains — at the insistence of the Kimmel Center's then-chairman, who found the bare walls visually unacceptable, the curtains' sound-dampening properties notwithstanding. (As the Inquirer reported, the curtains were removed in short order after the chairman's death.)

In addition, key changes were made to Johnson's design during construction, with the auditorium made larger and cheaper wood used for veneer than he had specified. Nevertheless, in the years since Verizon Hall opened, and following many tune-up visits by Johnson and his colleagues, the sound there is greatly improved, and those critics who have returned have noted the difference. Not all of those writers have returned, however, and the hall's acoustical reputation remains somewhat tainted in some circles as a result.

Among other facilities whose sound Johnson and his firm designed are the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark, the Chan Centre in Vancouver, the Bart‹k National Concert Hall in Budapest, the Sala Sê£o Paulo in Brazil's largest city, the Auditorium de Dijon (France), the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center, and the Rose Theater and Allen Room at Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York City. He and Artec are also responsible for two of the best-regarded acoustical retrofits — revamps of venues with notoriously poor sound — of the past decade: Roy Thomson Hall in Toronto and the Salle Pleyel in Paris.

Two high-profile Johnson venues have opened in just the past year: Segerstrom Concert Hall in California's Orange County and the Carnival Center in Miami.

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