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Detroit: Max M. Fisher Music Center

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An elegant four-story atrium lobby at the Max M. Fisher Music Center will serve as a site for fundraising and other functions, as well as providing a place to mingle during concert intermissions. The $60-million music venue is to open next week.

A MODERN CLASSIC: Additions bring glossy look while retaining concert hall's elegance

October 4, 2003



You can't really blame C. Howard Crane, architect of the Fox, State, and other landmark Detroit theaters, for not anticipating all the needs of people 75 or more years in the future.

When Crane designed Orchestra Hall on Woodward Avenue in 1919, he crafted a great concert venue, one whose acoustics rival those of famous halls in Boston and New York.

But aside from seats and a stage, there wasn't much else in the tight 52,000-square-foot structure, certainly not the galaxy of auxiliary spaces found in newer halls today.

So when the $60-million Max M. Fisher Music Center opens next week, it will try to rectify that. The Max, as it's called, more than triples the square footage of the orchestral complex and offers multiple new uses. The project adds everything from modern wheelchair access and more bathrooms to an elegant lobby for mingling and space to hear jazz and other non-classical music.

Tying the new and the old together posed an architectural puzzle that has been solved in a capable, if somewhat conservative, fashion by a team led by Diamond and Schmitt Architects of Toronto. Since Crane's Orchestra Hall already fronted right on Woodward Avenue, all the new space had to extend off to one side, a potentially awkward arrangement. But Diamond and Schmitt created a sensible progression of spaces, and punched through enough connections to the existing symphony hall to ease any bottlenecks at intermission.

As one of Detroit's most important new cultural venues to open in years, there's a great deal of celebration surrounding the Max. Yet it is, perhaps, a little odd that the substantially enlarged footprint represents mostly auxiliary or back-of-the-house space, leaving the main event -- Crane's original hall -- intact, if thoughtfully and beautifully refreshed.

But, then, viewed across the decades, it's sort of embarrassing, really, to compare how little beyond great acoustics and comfortable seats those 1919-era Detroiters needed compared to what we demand today.

Detroit's cultural mavens of that time were no slouches; they gave us the Detroit Institute of Arts, the Fisher and Guardian skyscrapers, the Rouge complex, neighborhoods like Indian Village and a lot more. Yet when it came to their concert halls, they made do with a great listening space and not much else.

Elbow room -- and more

Today, by contrast, we seemingly require just as much room to mingleduring intermission as we do for the performance itself. Hence, the Max's elegant new four-story lobby, with its bar, its cozy seating areas, its grand stairway and its balconies. This atrium can, and no doubt will, double as a venue for fund-raising, for political bashes, for the odd birthday or wedding party and other occasions. Such spaces are considered as necessary for a symphony today as violins and cellos.

Then, too, the new Max features the Music Box, a 450-seat recital hall with adjustable walls, ceiling panels and seating. There's a new gift shop, a wing of administrative space, a rehearsal center, musicians' rooms and a lot more.

Why is so much more space needed today, when the music itself was just as powerful in the 1920s? Building codes make some difference, of course. Wider fire exits, wheelchair access and more bathrooms added space. The vastly expanded administrative staffs of today further swelled the square footage.

Yet in today's almost chaotically democratic age, the volume of new space responds to still other demands that Crane, who died in 1952, could never have foreseen. Just as women get a lot more bathrooms in the Max than in Crane's original, so, too, do women -- and men -- get more space for all kinds of things: to network, to call the baby-sitter, to have a drink, to escape from mom and dad.

Into the future

The stylistic wrapping for all this new space displays a thoughtful modernism.

Hard-edged, industrially machined materials, including bronze, stone, glass and steel, frame the four-story atrium. The atrium is punctuated and illuminated by four light columns hung from the ceiling at different heights. The largely glass exterior in this part of the building allows great splashes of light to flood out onto the nighttime street.

A welcomed modernism also swaddles the Music Box. This venue sports moveable walls, adjustable ceiling panels and easily rearranged seats. I say "welcomed" because not every cultural venue in Detroit needs to evoke the Renaissance. As much as we love Crane's masterpiece, it's about time Detroiters got a sleeker, jazzier venue like this new recital hall.

Yet if the Max's overall style is modernist, it's a restrained modernism. There are no asymmetrical spaces, no jarring lines, nothing, I'm afraid to say, that would in the least unsettle a crowd of well-to-do patrons. It is -- pardon the oxymoron -- a conservative modernism. The new space is elegant, but it always defers politely to Crane's ornate Beaux Arts classicism next door.

By way of contrast, consider the Marion Oliver McCaw Hall, a remake of a 75-year-old performance center in Seattle that re-opened in June.

The older auditorium (admittedly nowhere near as significant as Crane's building) was remade along the same lines as Orchestra Hall, with a new lobby, recital hall, gift shop and so forth. But it was packaged in a design that leaps out beyond the normal rectangular grid in a soaring, rounded, dizzyingly evocative swirl of new spaces.

I must admit to a little disappointment that Detroit didn't get that sort of provocative new building. But just as in Washington, D.C., no building can be taller than the Washington Monument, here the urge not to outshine Crane's 1919 original proved too strong.

Still, in most ways the Max is just what Detroit needs. It lines up squarely on its Woodward frontage, adding a solid new entry on a street that for too long has suffered from bleak abandonment. And it enhances and transcends the original orchestral space in ways that will benefit audiences and musicians for years to come.

C. Howard Crane would be pleased.

JOHN GALLAGHER covers development news and is the architecture critic for the Free Press. He is the coauthor of "AIA Detroit: The American Institute of Architects Guide to Detroit Architecture." Contact him at 313-222-5173 or [email protected]

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