Designing Symphony Hall (Abravanel Hall) and Salt Lake Arts Center was a joyous and exhausting experience. Bob Fowler led the design team; Joe Ruben (deceased) and I were his associates. The three of us were inspired not only by the opportunity to design a major patrons, Maurice Abravanel, O.C. Tanner, Jack Gallivan, Georgius Cannon, and other members of the Design and Construction Committee.
Our goals were simple but daunting. Within the limits of a Spartan budget, we hoped to design buildings of singular beauty. Furthermore, Abravanel Hall was to have acoustical properties equal to the best orchestra halls in the world.
After digesting the space and utilization program for the buildings, we visited the site, which at that time was a treeless parking lot/taxi staging area. During our visit, we climbed into the bed of an old sky-blue pickup truck to get a good view of the surrounding area. From this vantage point, an exciting idea was born–pull the auditorium, lobby, and art gallery back from the street and look northeast across the intersection to Temple Square. After sever weeks of exploratory sketching, we settled on a scheme which combined a plaza, a fountain, the auditorium itself, together with a towering, transparent lobby, and an arts center. Within the lobby, a major stairway with elevated balconies and bridges was devised, not only to enrich the lobby spatially, but also to provide views across the plaza and fountain to Temple Square and the Tabernacle. (Prior to Abravanel Hall the Tabernacle had bee the home of the Utah Symphony.) Both the main stair and the fountain were placed on a 45-degree angle in order to emphasize the relation between the lobby, the fountain, and Temple Square. The auditorium itself, from the very beginning was a “shoebox” configuration because such a configuration was, and still remains, a reliable means of achieving the acoustical properties which the Maestro and musicians desired. The musicians platform was framed by a proscenium arch in order to dignify and dramatize musical performances. The number of seats was limited to 2,800 (1,800 orchestra level, 500 first tier, 300 second tier, 200 third tier) in order to satisfy the rigorous acoustical criteria we adopted. We designed the tiers in such a way that all spectators had an unobstructed view of the musicians platform. At that time, this feature was unique for “shoebox” auditoria. The resulting design provided an auditorium with the complex acoustical properties ideal for unamplified orchestral and choral performances. Since its construction, the hall has been lauded worldwide for the warmth, clarity, and richness of its sound.
In an effort to achieve a monumental scale in the buildings we employed flat unadorned surfaces. Decorative architectural applications were eschewed and we relied wholly on the strength of simplicity to suggest permanence and integrity. To meet budgetary restraints we employed masonry as the chief material in lieu of stone. We achieved dramatic visual effects by using indirect lighting which enlivened otherwise bland materials and forms. Over the years indiscriminate, unwelcome changes have occurred in the lobby all of which have diminished the visual strength of the original composition. Nevertheless the nascent energy of the space, though now somewhat obscure, is still evident.
We separated the Arts Center from Abravanel Hall in order to give the Center an identity of its own. The same materials and forms were used in the Center but its position on the site gives it an importance in excess of its relatively small size. The gallery, which is the dominant space in the building, was positioned so as to be easily accessed. We anticipated that a variety of exhibits, including shows of the Center’s collection of Utah art, would be placed here.
During the construction of Abravanel Hall and the Arts Center, occasional letters to the editor or articles in the op-ed sections would appear in local newspapers. These letters and articles were sometimes critical of the design of the project particularly at the outset of construction. As luck would have it the very first piece of Abravanel Hall which was visible to the public was a raw concrete section of the lobby wall. For weeks criticism of our work rained down on us and the committee but eventually as the totality of the formal composition became clear the public actually began to like the buildings.
Over the last twenty five years we, as the architects for Abravanel Hall and Salt Lake Arts Center, have admired the work of the Utah Symphony and the Arts Center. We have been personally gratified with every successful concert and art exhibit, of which there have been many. In truth, we are as interested in the future of our buildings today as we were decades ago when we undertook our first design sketches.