Tuesday October 10, 2006

The Carnival Center for the Performing Arts

Carnival Center Montage
A big clumsy photo montage—click for full-sized

Well, here we are, then—a half a billion or so dollars and a couple of decades later, and our performing arts center is open at last. Let’s first stop and acknowledge something: The center will present many amazing shows in the future. The Miami Art Museum and Science Museum will have their buildings open. A tunnel may be built under the Port of Miami. Biscayne Boulevard will be reborn, with new streetscaping, humongo towers, and brand new streetcar service. But probably nothing, for many, many decades will be as momentous as the opening of these buildings. This is the biggest deal that will come in Miami for a long time. Stop and reflect on it. (And if you’re still sour about the money, consider that the tunnel, for example, is estimated at 1.2 billion, before plans have even been begun. The day will not be long, in these days of ballooning budgets, before a project of this magnitude coming in finished for under a half a billion will sound like a dream.)

OK? Good. Now, I’ve had my issues with the choice of the architect on this project. And while these buildings will never be considered for inclusion on a list of the world’s greatest, only the most bitter among us could fail to recognize that they are, in the end, spectacular. The irregular lines and rhythms of the outside of these buildings engage the buildings around them in dialogue: their abstractness requires outside input for a sense of scale, while lending a sense of possibility and excitement in return. It works, and it works better the closer you get to the buildings. Contrary to what someone said at one point, the buildings are clad in exquisite materials, with meticulous attention paid to texture, color, and detailing.

Of course, and as important as the facade of a building of this magnitude is, it’s the interior, especially the actual performances spaces, that count most. Before we venture inside, a small bit of orientation:

Opera House

Here’s the Ziff Ballet Opera House (hereafter ‘Opera House’). We’re to the South of the complex, looking Northwest. On each building, the glass side indicates the “front” of the house, with the stage on the opposite end. In the Opera House, the audience faces roughly North, while the audience in the Concert Hall faces roughly South.

Concert Hall

See? Now we’re to the North, looking Southeast at the Knight Concert Hall. The glass walls play tricks with the camera perspective, but it’s true: The Concert Hall’s front tilts away from the street, while the Opera House’s front tilts toward the street a bit. I’m not sure any of that will make sense to someone who hasn’t walked around the site a little, but let’s head inside anyway.


When I was shooting inside the building, I was all like “my kingdom for a wide-angle lens!” Here’s looking up in the lobby of the Opera House. One of the things this building does very well is to play with scale: it’s 5 or 6 stories tall, max, but by hiding visual references to “floors,” it sometimes comes across as boundless. You’re seeing exactly one actual balcony in this photo, but it easily looks like maybe nine. This effect is in evidence both inside and outside.

Carnival Center

Here’s the same lobby from the top floor, looking down. Let’s just get to it: the choice of José Bedia to decorate the most prominent interior spaces is maybe the single best decision made in the planning of the Center. Bedia is great on canvas, but his imagery has never felt as at-home, grand, and just plain right as it does in poured-in-place Terrazzo. The reaching-hands motif is nice enough, but the details (the stars have Picasso-like faces in them), the balance, and the composition make this masterpiece really sing. These pieces really do elevate the lobbies of the two buildings.

Carnival Center

In contrast, Bedia’s etchings on the handrail glass look like doodle afterthoughts. Who can argue with such effortless and masterful doodle afterthoughts, though?

Carnival Center, looking towards audience

Now over to the Knight Concert Hall. Again, poor optics prevented me from capturing any single image that will ever do this room justice. But take my word for it: it’s spectacular. Made almost entirely of cedar(??), this hall is both sensual in its appointment and visionary in its layout; the audience seating areas are fluid, and while the stage is the center of focus, it does not occupy some exalted “superior” space; it is a perfectly functional and humble part of the room as a whole. Balconies that surround the entire room give the audience, theoretically, a freedom of movement.

Carnival Center

Here’s a view of the stage. The seating behind the stage can either be occupied by performers, singers, or audience. The big unanswered question (if you were cheeky you’d call it “the 480 million dollar question”) is: How does it sound? Unfortunately, since all the performances I saw there Sunday were amplified, I can’t really give a satisfactory answer. I did my best to check out the sound from all sorts of different perspectives and listen critically, and there were definitely some less-then-satisfactory things to be heard, but nothing from which any definitive inferences could be drawn.

Carnival Center

Am I boring you yet? Great, then let’s get into some of the Concert Hall’s acoustics adjustment features! Here’s what we might affectionately call the ‘big swirly thing.’ The BST can be raised or lowered to control sound diffraction from the performance space. It was fully lowered throughout the afternoon, in it’s “intimate” setting.

Carnival Center

A lateral view of the BST. Note the weighted curtains that lower above it.

Carnival Center

Lights and speakers are attached to the BST. I might point out that the lights throughout the complex looked absurdly complicated. They’re probably smarter then the robots that built your Hyundai. More importantly, though: if you look between the balconies in this picture, you see . . . well, very little. But you’re actually seeing acoustic curtains, which hide the infamous ‘gigantic concrete acoustic doors’ (GCAD? or is that too much?). The GCADs open onto a huge reverberation chamber, which (really) you have to pass through to get into the hall. The idea is that the doors can be opened slightly or all the way to make the room sound larger. Check it out:

Carnival Center

Unless you go, you’ll never really understand how strange this particular space is. Note that you can’t really see it when entering the hall from the back, so if you go, try to enter or leave through the sides. Again, on Sunday, the doors were in their fully retracted, “intimate” configuration.

Carnival Center

This is the official nosebleed section of the hall. To its credit, the Center is selling tickets to lots of shows for $15. If you’re all about those cheap seats, buy early, because there’s a big difference between the front and the back of the top balconies. Aside from that, every seat in the room is a different type of spectacular, and to regular attendees I’d recommend buying seats from different parts of the room on different nights, because the experience is so different depending on where you sit.

Carnival Center

By no stretch of the imagination is the Opera House any less glorious. As befitting a room where the visual center of attention needs to be squarely on the stage, however, it is more subdued. It’s also more traditional in layout, with distinct boxes along the sides and balconies along the back. Actually, the second floor has boxes at the back, too, so there are a total of three balconies. The best seats in the house are the front row of the first balcony (level 3).

Carnival Center

A smaller swirly thing on the ceiling appears to be purely ornamental. In person, it’s suitably grand.

Carnival Center

Here’s the nosebleed view of the Opera House. Not bad. Being able to hear anything during an unamplified performance in a full house? Time will tell, but my impression is “only with the most polite and silent of audiences.” Which reminds me of something I noticed, which goes for both houses—cell phone reception is completely nill pretty much throughout the buildings. A nice touch.

Carnival Center

The black things under the seats are part of the ventilation system, which silently diffuses air throughout the room. The seats are perfect—not overly soft or fancy, but made with solid wood, and very comfortable. Different color wood and fabric in the Concert hall, but same exact design. The stage is the stage; I talked a little about the stage area in the construction preview, by the way.

Carnival Center

The corridors connecting the lobbies and the room are a bit labyrinth. I’m sure this’ll be a lot better once the signage is finalized and that lots of ushers will be on hand for performances.

Carnival Center

Where the building’s unique exterior meets its working interior, there are occasionally some awkward spaces and angles. It’s mostly kind of fun. Sloppy fit and finish here and there (but mostly in out of the way spots) belie the fact that, as the opening date approached, there was some whip-cracking on the construction site as the crew raced to be finished in time.

Carnival Center

A swanky VIP room features a painting of—could it be?—I think it’s Sanford and Dolores Ziff! If you run into them around town, thank them for me; their contribution to getting this thing built goes beyond the $17 million (?) they gave.

Carnival Center

Speaking of artwork, here’s the mosaic mural at the entry to the Studio Theater (Anybody catch the name of the artist? It’s not in the press packet.) by Cundo Bermudez (thanks to Verticus, and see #2 in the comments for more info).

Carnival Center

The Studio Theater is a black box: a small and versatile performance space with movable seating. Black box theaters are generally used for more experimental types of shows, which works out, because they also accommodate fewer people. The Studio Theater seats about 200, depending on the configuration. No photos of the inside (though the Indian performances from yesterday were held there, that might give you some idea), but it’s just a big rectangular room.

Carnival Center

The plaza is much more of a “thing” then I was expecting. It’s pleasant, and there’s a neat little cascading fountain. It’ll be interesting how it gets used for programming, but it’s function as a public space will only come as (if?) the neighborhood develops into more of a pedestrian zone (see Miami 21). The 2nd story walkway that connects the two buildings is hidden by the crowns of palm trees in this photo. While I don’t see it being of much use to regular patrons of the center (i.e. you go into the building where your show’s playing and stay there), it ties the buildings together conceptually, and keeps staff and visitors from having to cross Biscayne at street level.

Carnival Center

The plaza intersects with 4 lanes of Biscayne Boulevard. The barricades in this photo are temporary, and normally those white lines are the only thing between traffic and pedestrians. This sounds crazy, but it’s actually really smart; see second generation traffic calming.

Carnival Center

I guess that’s it. Here’s a picture of the other terrazzo floor, in the Concert Hall. Like I said: masterful. The color choice, to me, seems to echo the eversoslightly less formal tone characteristic of the whole Concert Hall.

What about programming? What about the future? What about that website? I’ll talk a little about all that tomorrow.

Full disclosure: I’ve had a bit of unpleasant history with the Carnival Center. (To make a long story short, I was hired, then un-hired, basically for writing on this blog.)

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  1. Miami Transit Man    Tue Oct 10, 11:20 AM #  

    Fantastic! Excellent review Alesh…

  2. Verticus    Tue Oct 10, 12:58 PM #  

    Regarding who did the floor-to-ceiling mosaic mural, it is by 93-year-old Cuban artist Cundo Bermudez, according to the Herald, “one of the pillars of the Cuban Vanguardia of the 1940s and ‘50s.” He calls it “Ways of Performing,” and as far as I’m concerened it is the best piece of public art at the CCPA. I love it. Bedia’s terraza floor and rail designs are wonderful too, but this old man’s mural knocks my socks off. I love the vibrant colors—which I think we can all agree, is something the CCPA needs—especially considering its subtropical local.

    I also thought your photo piece on the CCPA was truly worthy—better than anything the Herald did in covering the parties. I’m sorry I couldn’t make any of them, but your photos helped me appreciate what I missed and what I’ll see.

  3. Manola Blablablanik    Tue Oct 10, 01:10 PM #  

    Thank you Alesh! You’re right. I am proud that we have a place like this. Screw the haters.

  4. NicFitKid    Tue Oct 10, 01:39 PM #  

    Damn, Alesh, you went off and put together one hell of a full blown article/review here. Excellent work.

    Oh, and that Carny Center looks nice, too, although I still wish they had kept Miami in the name somewhere, seeing as how public funds paid for the lion’s share of construction.

  5. paula    Tue Oct 10, 02:13 PM #  

    Love the pictures!

  6. dig    Tue Oct 10, 03:35 PM #  

    great job.

  7. alesh    Tue Oct 10, 04:41 PM #  

    Thanks again, everybody. Feel free to avail yourselves of the ‘del.icio.us’ ‘digg’ and ‘reddit’ links.

    This is for you, Nic—The light cans got slapped with a “Miami Performing Arts Center” sticker, complete with the original ‘sunburst’ logo, as they went up, and so they live on. Check them out on the first balcony of the Opera House.

    Thanks for the info, Verticus; I’m about to add it to the article.

  8. mkh    Tue Oct 10, 05:58 PM #  

    Nice work, Alesh—solid reporting and great photos! I made a quick spin through on Sunday, and agree with pretty much all your findings. (My own vastly inferior photos are here.) I found the strangely lit acoustic spaces fascinating, too.

    One aspect I appreciated is that the stage in the concert hall accomodates seating behind the performers. Obviously the effectiveness of this remains to be heard, but it was an interesting approach.

    I ventured into the Black Box, too, and it’s pretty much what you’d expect—movable risers, folding chairs, a bare bones set-up. But that’s as it should be.

    Overall I am much more confident about the center than I was.

  9. alesh    Thu Oct 12, 08:21 AM #  

    “What about the future?”

    I just haven’t felt like getting into it yet. Maybe next week.

  10. bianca    Fri Oct 13, 05:00 PM #  

    I really appreciated your article on CCPA. Especially since I normally live in Miami but am currently in California. I’ve been curious as to what all these years and all that money has come down to. It looks spectacular and I look forward to seeing shows there. Thank you for the great pictures and thorough review.

    I hope that the CCPA will help to inspire the local arts scene as well. To new things!