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Designs for America's First Standalone Jazz Hall

Architects created a San Francisco performance space that feels more like a community room.

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Mark Cavagnero Associates

After holding its performances in an improvised mix of venues around the city for the past three decades, SFJAZZ finally has a place to park its piano. When it opens on January 21, 2013, the new 35,000-square-foot SFJAZZ Center will be the first standalone jazz performance hall in the U.S., and just a drumstick’s throw from the San Francisco Ballet and the San Francisco Opera in the city’s performing arts district. The main public space, the second-floor lobby, will offer sweeping views of the city from behind an expansive glass facade. We recently toured the facility with architect Mark Cavagnero.

The piano in question will be parked on a lift at center stage of the auditorium and, thanks to a design by Mark Cavagnero Associates that uses glass wherever possible, will be visible to passersby on the street who want to peek in on shows. To inform their design, the architects looked at everything from formal concert halls to tiny New York jazz clubs. "They were noisy, but they had a great vibe," says Cavagnero.

Though its centerpiece is a state-of-the-art 700-seat auditorium, SFJAZZ didn’t want their performance space to feel like a conventional theater, with a big proscenium arch and a sharp division between stage and audience. "We were talking about it being more like a community room," says Cavagnero. "I started thinking about these Unitarian churches, which were really designed to be meeting rooms. They were designed to be much more interactive, much more community-like, much more engaging, so people would see each other."

Recalling Frank Lloyd Wright’s Unity Temple outside Chicago and Louis Kahn’s Wright-inspired First Unitarian Church in Rochester, New York, Cavagnero configured the space as a half cube—80 feet square and 40 feet high, reminiscent of Wright’s 60 feet square, 30-foot-high volume. “I’m a huge architecture nerd,” Cavagnero says with some sheepishness.

To capture the spirit of one-room jazz clubs, the architects designed the auditorium to be configurable for smaller concerts. A set of screens—visually solid but acoustically transparent—can segment off the central portion of seating to create a more intimate scale for shows with a crowd of 300 to 350. The risers are collapsible, too, to make space for a dance floor or to allow the audience to sit around the musicians. It was important, says SFJAZZ founder and executive artistic director Randall Kline, to keep “the idea of looking into people’s eyes instead of a dark sea of faces.”

Using a concrete box for the auditorium took care of much of the load and seismic demands on the building’s cast-in-place concrete structure, leaving the exterior walls free for as much glass as possible. "We wanted the perimeter to be as delicate as it could be," says Cavagnero. "We used smaller columns and integrated them into the windows so that the inside felt as tentlike as possible."

Images courtesy Mark Cavagnero Associates; Construction photo courtesy SFJAZZ

This post originally appeared on Architizer, an Atlantic partner site.

About the Author

  • Lamar Anderson is a San Francisco–based freelance writer. Her work has appeared in Architectural Record, ARTnews, the Hairpin, and Salon.