Into the Wood

Undulating Vision: Bard College set its Frank Gehry-designed performing-arts center at the edge of the forest.
Photo credit: Evan Sklar

The nineteenth-century Luminists who painted the water and hills of the Hudson Valley dissolving into backlit skies defined New York’s most fabled landscape. But that river view, so hazy and ephemeral, obstructed other visions. Several years ago, a local historic preservation group opposed Frank Gehry’s plan for a concert hall at Bard College because, they argued, a modern building would intrude on a historic panorama. So the college moved the project to a less sensitive site backing on a wood, building a larger structure while deftly parrying any objection the preservationists may have harbored about Gehry’s “Californicating” a picturesque landscape. “The preservationists did us a favor, but for the wrong reasons,” says Bard president Leon Botstein. “They imposed their view of the Hudson Valley, which is all about the past and Cherry Orchard mansions, without any accommodation for modernity. But if you are in the business of the arts, you have to live in the present.”

The priests of aspic needn’t have worried. Students walking through the campus today can barely discern what seems like an undulating apparition melting into the sky at the far end of a long meadow: The rippling form belongs to the clouds. A canopy of metal floats like a huge handkerchief above a voluminous carapace whose thin edges bend gently over the rolling lawns. With sunlight glinting on its brushed-stainless-steel surfaces, the gravity-defying structure is as ethereal as any Luminist vista.

Under the baton of Botstein, who doubles as music director of the American Symphony Orchestra, Bard has acquired one of the outstanding structures built on American campuses in the last generation. The Richard B. Fisher Center for the Performing Arts houses the 900-seat Sosnoff Theater for dance, opera, and concerts. A lower, connected structure holds the 200-seat black-box Theater Two, along with classrooms, offices, and dance and drama studios.

In Concert: The Fisher Center's main hall seats 900.Photo: Evan Sklar

Botstein approached Gehry before the Guggenheim Bilbao made him an international celebrity. “We needed an artist-architect who wouldn’t insult the landscape,” says Botstein. “We wanted someone who could settle the building lightly on the land.” Botstein has been instrumental in making Bard a resource and destination in the region with the annual Bard Music Festival. The program reinforces the mission of a college that specializes in the visual and performing arts.

Compared with Bilbao, Fisher Center is almost diminutive. But the design grows from the same notion of architecture conceived as gesture and movement, an idea that has motivated Gehry for nearly two decades. He is a Paganini among architects, able to build any cadenza of form. At Bard, Gehry almost teases us with his virtuosity, the edges of the canopy trailing off in the air like the last cantilevered stretch of a tendril: Sunlight ignites the surfaces. Yet walk through the glass entrance wall, under the fluttering, apparently unstructured canopy, and enter a highly structured, no-nonsense world of steel, raw concrete, and geothermal energy systems. The asymmetrical stainless-steel carapace centers on a symmetrical concert hall. Stairs rise in the space left over between the shell and the structure vaulting the theater. Gehry lets this area shape itself as an informal space free of opulence. There’s a sense of a Tanglewood shed here.

Gehry translates matter into energy. at Bilbao, he masked the interior of the shell and its structure with white Sheetrock, but at Bard, he exposes the linear steel system supporting the nonlinear abstraction. The steel rib cage anchors an exterior surface that ripples and unfurls with the energy of a flag snapping in a brisk wind.

A devotee of classical music, Gehry collaborated with Japanese acoustician Yasuhisa Toyota to make the hall work for opera, concerts, and dance. The room itself takes the form of a lyre; Gehry scribbles gestural lines on the walls to help the beveled boxes and balconies break the sound. Each of the performing arts, however, has its own desirable sight lines and reverberation times, and Gehry solved the conflicting demands by creating a large stage for opera and dance that could be fitted with a smaller concert shell. Massive panels in the wings can be configured onstage under more panels lowered from above.

“I am skeptical of acousticians, so I held my breath,” notes Botstein. “But the acoustics have exceeded our wildest expectations.” The conductor inaugurated the hall last weekend with Mahler’s huge Third Symphony.

The limited capacity may guarantee intimacy, but it will not make the number crunchers happy. “Opera, classical music, dance, and serious theater require patronage,” Botstein insists. “We’re not going to charge $150 a ticket, because we want to be accessible to the middle class and to students.”

The need for patronage is all the more acute in institutions with rarefied programs, according to Richard Fisher, chairman emeritus of Morgan Stanley and the principal donor to the center. “It’s absolutely essential to develop financial support for risk-taking performing-arts centers,” says Fisher, a member of the Bard board. “The center will change the cultural life of the whole mid-Hudson area. And Gehry’s design will add to the aesthetic experience of what’s going on in the hall.”

A master of invention, Gehry is no less a realist, and in this $62 million structure he pushed the limits of what the budget would bear. He focused his resources strategically on a roof envelope that complements the setting while conditioning visitors psychologically for an elevating experience inside.

Gehry buys his bell jar by leaving the back of the building and the loading docks undesigned. But he tamped down his virtuosity too much in the “teaching” building around Theater Two. The boxy forms support the roof like an overbuilt podium and miss their chance to follow flows cued by the roofscape. The too-stolid pedestal refuses to join the dance and isolates the roof, which looks like a separate façade.

Still, the full-frontal charisma of the building alone will guarantee the success of the summer festivals, and for the students, the building sets the bar for artistic invention. It will instantly become both an object lesson and an oneiric object, the rare building that at once teaches by example and provokes speculation and even reverie. The building practices the discipline and vision that the school teaches, and on the outside, it captures the ineffable beauty of a Luminist painting.

Preservation sometimes masks reactionary instincts, and reactionaries might justifiably feel discomfited by a modern building that conspicuously succeeds in heightening the painterly effects of the Hudson’s landscape. Gehry’s design even eclipses the river mansions done by Stanford White nearby, as well as the smug assumption that the aesthetic quality of life peaked during America’s Belle Époque, never to be surpassed again. White may have deftly adapted and reinvigorated classicized architecture, but Gehry exhibits an artistic originality of a higher order. The Fisher Center invites what has long been the conservative Hudson Valley culture into the twenty-first century on the wings of this most luminous vision.

Art Listings
Openings & Closings

Richard B. Fisher Center for the Performing Arts
At Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson, New York. Architect: Frank Gehry.

Into the Wood