Tobin Center’s Shell: Beautiful Perspectives

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Tobin Center with Wenger Diva Acoustical Shell.

Tobin Center with Wenger Diva Acoustical Shell.

Last fall we profiled the new $203 million Tobin Center for the Performing Arts in San Antonio, a stunningly beautiful facility with a unique acoustical shell as its centerpiece. Although Wenger has made hundreds of acoustical shells, the Tobin Center acoustical shell was the first that incorporated a digitally printed overlay pattern along with traditional woodworking craftsmanship. This week we’ll explore the shell further.

Encouraging Interpretations. The large printed overlay that seems to billow across all the shell towers was inspired by the arabesque ornamentation of the original auditorium’s Spanish Colonial Revival architecture. However, the resulting design also evokes other images: Clouds…Ocean waves…Wind currents…

“Any of these multiple interpretations – or others – ablre encouraged,” said Miles Mazzie, Associate with Sussman/Prejza graphic design studio. “Some visitors will attend numerous concerts and see the shell many times.”

The shell’s graphics were intended to feel comfortable in the space, according to Mazzie, and in scale with the overall architecture. The graphics also appear in other interior design elements, such as on the auditorium balcony fronts.

Integrating Seamlessly. Mazzie says today’s digital technology can seamlessly integrate such images into architecture on almost any material, including wood, metal, glass and vinyl. Printing on the wood veneer was performed at Image Mill, where John van Rensburg states the challenge was creating an image that didn’t look too overt, yet appeared very intentional from a distance.

“Printing with translucent ink allowed the veneer’s wood grain to show through the dot pattern,” notes van Rensburg. He adds that the Anegre wood’s natural coloring creates interesting variations depending on the viewer’s perspective, while transforming the ink’s nut-brown color into more of a plum hue.

Tobin Center Acoustical Shell

Close-up of dot pattern

Blending Looks. “The shell blends two looks,” comments Adam T. Huggard, Senior Associate with Fisher Dachs Associates, the theatrical consultants on the project. He believes the combination of two looks – organic, natural wood and high-tech printing – creates a dualistic visual effect analogous to painted scenery onstage.

“With a scenic painting, every brush stroke is visible; up close it is hard to make out the pattern,” he explains. “But from the audience’s vantage point, everything makes sense and looks perfect.”

The audience sees the shell image formed by the collective printed dots as a backdrop for the musicians, a gestalt greater than the sum of its parts. Meanwhile, musicians onstage do not perceive the overall pattern, but only bask in the warmth of the stained wood veneer suggesting the richness of a finely crafted musical instrument.

Supporting Excellence. “Although the shell’s visual element does not directly influence the musician’s craft, there are psychoacoustic benefits,” states Huggard. “A comfortable, natural-wood surrounding helps relax the musicians, enabling them to play their best.”

In a way, the Tobin Center acoustical shell’s dualistic visual effect also mirrors its twofold acoustical impact. Onstage, performers benefit from enhanced early reflections and improved communication. In the auditorium, audience members hear a blended, focused and fuller sound.

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