A graffiti-covered factory in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, may not seem the most likely of venues for classical music. But the firm Bureau V took cues from the world’s most revered concert halls to create National Sawdust, an artist-led performance space for the cultivation of new musical composition. It is, however, anything but traditional.
“We wanted a space that represents the mood that something important could happen here,” says Peter Zuspan, one of the designers.
National Sawdust is the dream of Kevin Dolan, a retired tax attorney and music buff. Dolan wanted to build an experimental incubator to kick-start the careers of young composers, with space to write, record, and perform. In order to be successful, it needed to be at once acoustically outstanding and architecturally iconic. “This is a way to maintain the culture of live performance for types of music that would otherwise not be sustained,” explains Dolan, “and introduce patrons to music that they would otherwise never hear.”
Dolan enlisted the rookie local firm Bureau V (founded just a year earlier in 2007) to design a home for the fledgling nonprofit institution. Zuspan, who runs the office with Stella Lee and Laura Trevino, was introduced to Dolan through an artist friend. Zuspan in turn called upon Arup (whose team he had worked with prior to starting Bureau V) to lend acoustical expertise.
Dolan says he told the team, “I want a space where, whether you are 25 or 65, you have the same reaction—that it’s amazing. I said we’re either going to build something we are all proud of or not going to build anything at all.”
While the search for a site was on, the team began to establish the parameters for the project. Raj Patel, who leads Arup’s work in acoustics, audiovisual services, and theater, saw similarities in National Sawdust’s mission and earlier modes of performance. “When Beethoven first performed the Eroica, it was in a relatively small room,” he says. “It would have been like a rock show in a club today—people would have been blown off their feet by the complexity and the changes in dynamics.” National Sawdust aspired to provide a similarly visceral experience.
Based on findings in Arup’s New York SoundLab and investigations of historic spaces—in particular, a room in the 18th-century palace of Esterháza in Hungary where Joseph Haydn wrote much of his music—the team determined that the optimum spatial configuration would be a room that was 100 feet long and 50 feet wide, with a minimum ceiling height of 25 feet. A serendipitous bike ride took Zuspan past a shuttered warehouse three blocks from Brooklyn’s northern waterfront, a factory that once pulverized wood into sawdust (the equipment was later repurposed to crush glass for fish tanks). The interiors were in poor shape, but it had good bones. Basement excavation started in 2011.
The space needed to accommodate a dizzying range of musical styles—from opera to drone metal—and it had to be acoustically isolated, especially from the rumble of the L subway line just one block away. So the design team opted for box-in-box construction, inserting a volume into the brick warehouse. This concept drove Bureau V’s aesthetic approach. “Everyone knows the postindustrial art-space typology in Brooklyn,” says Zuspan. “We thought it would be a good juxtaposition to put something inside that was crystalline and bespoke.”
From the east facade, concertgoers enter into a canyon-like vestibule between the performance hall and an area for the bar and box office. Angular walls in this foyer, clad in obsidian-black glazed tile, jut outward like facets on a gem.
This enigmatic enclosure divulges little of the visual punch to come. Through a 10-by-10-foot sliding door, the hall opens into a double-height performance space, clad in a stunning composition of white, shardlike acoustic panels sliced by 4-inch- to 12-inch-wide channels that course around the space like black ribbons. The effect is startling, like standing in the midst of a lightning storm.
Every part of the concert hall was determined by computer modeling and meticulous acoustic testing. In order to insulate the space from outside noise and vibrations, the performance hall has a multilayered concrete floor slab and concrete-block walls, isolated from the existing structure on a chassis of springs. The geometric wall panels are made from custom-fabricated laser-cut aluminum and backed with a high-end speaker fabric. They are visually translucent—backlit with dimmable fluorescent lighting—and the perforated pattern in the aluminum allows for 65 percent openness, as stipulated by Arup’s acoustic recommendations. Behind these panels is an 18-inch space, within which curtains can be opened or closed to accommodate different acoustic needs.
From concept to completion, National Sawdust took nearly seven years. And there is still more to come—a full-service restaurant is anticipated to open in the building early next year, and nearly 500 performances are already booked at the venue for 2016.
When the house officially opened on October 1 the acoustic panels were bathed in jewel-colored light, and the diverse sounds—from performances by mezzo-soprano Eve Gigliotti, folk artist Chris Thile, Wilco’s Glenn Kotche, Nico Muhly, and Philip Glass—electrified the air.
“Nothing quite like it exists in New York City, or anywhere else in the world, and it must be seen (and heard) to be believed indeed,” said the Village Voice in its review.
“When I walked in and saw the walls lit up, it was beyond my wildest dreams,” says Dolan. “It was just dazzling.”
Architect of record:
General Contractor: Alcon Builders Group
Client: Kevin Dolan
Owner: National Sawdust
Size: 14,200 square feet
Cost: $16 million
Completion date:October 2015
Special interior finishes unique to this project
Bar and kitchen equipment
Other special building components