Aside from a kaleidoscopic mural and a slim ribbon of windows, National Sawdust, a new performance venue in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, looks almost like any other industrial conversion on the outside. But step inside the narrow entrance and that’s where it comes alive. You’ll find yourself in a tall lobby bracketed by two angular, tile-clad walls. The polished concrete floor and brick shell nod to the structure’s past life as a factory, but the faceted surfaces and sculptural chandeliers signal its current incarnation as a creative space. Go another layer deeper and you’re in the performance hall, a soaring white room criss-crossed with black bands.
Founded by Kevin Dolan, National Sawdust has been in the making for five years. More than just a place to see events, it’s a nonprofit that’s dedicated to exploring the entire creative process that goes into creating music, understanding how it sounds when it’s performed, recording the piece, and finally experiencing it. On an aesthetic level, it needed to have a presence unlike any other space, something that would spark ideas and inspire creativity. On an acoustic level, it needed to sound damn good.
To accomplish the lofty challenge, Dolan hired Bureau V—a design firm from the neighborhood—to develop the architectural concept and Arup—a global consulting firm—to fine tune the aural characteristics.
“The project was at the highest level of complexity per square foot of anything we’ve worked on,” says Raj Patel, principal of acoustic consulting for Arup. “We had to be tight, think efficiently, and be smart.”
National Sawdust’s daring visuals aren’t just about creating a pretty package. Each element was purpose-designed to enhance the experience for the audience and performers. Moreover, the acoustics and architecture were considered in equal measure for every element in the structure.
One of the great challenges was how to make a cavernous building sound good and feel comfortable. Early on, the designers conceived of a box-in-box concept. While they would retain the historic shell, they would also build an entirely new form within it. This helped to ensure that no sound traveled inside the performance space and no sound escaped. Plus, this gave Bureau V and Arup nearly carte blanche do develop the structure.
“I didn’t want to design a black-box theater,” Peter Zuspan, principal of Bureau V, says as he and Patel guide me through the space. “It should be memorable and shouldn’t just ‘disappear’ when the lights go down.”
Though National Sawdust expresses a modern language, it’s rooted in a very historic way of thinking. Up until the 20th century, music was often commissioned by (wealthy) patrons to be performed in a specific place. Architecture and music developed in tandem for years as composers would create pieces that responded to the aural qualities of a specific place. “The big edict was to create a space for creating music—not just for it to be about performance,” Patel says.
The structure is a “retooling of an 18th-century chamber house,” Zuspan says Estherhazy, a Hungarian estate where Joseph Haydn was an in-house composer, was one of the reference points for Bureau V.
That National Sawdust would house a variety of musical styles posed another acoustic-engineering challenge. As a starting reference, Zuspan and Patel knew that the founder purchased a Bösendorfer piano for the venue. They based the performance space’s volume on that instrument—essentially the room was tailored so the piano could fill it with sound.
With that established, the next challenge was making the room flexible so that the performers could make it their own. “We had to create an architectural system that always looked the same, but could be changed,” Zuspan says.
The space is very much about creating a bond between the performer and the audience. For flexibility, there’s no rigid distinction to where the musicians set up shop. The could play in a corner, smack dab in the center of the room, and even in the balcony if they want (the architects made sure there was enough room upstairs to make this possible). Lighting and speakers hang from tracks in the ceiling. The equipment can be reconfigured anywhere in the room—hence the numerous tracks cutting across the ceiling—as there’s no set “stage” on the floor. Should someone want to bring in a tall stage, they certainly could. Sections of the floor actually rise if the musicians want to be a little taller than the audience.
Custom “acoustically transparent and visually translucent” panels made from powder-coated aluminum and fabric clad the walls of the space. While the pattern is visually arresting, it serves a purpose: to ensure the walls are 65:35 ratio of solid-to-open surface to optimize resonance. Moreover, the panels become a canvas for projection mapping and speaks to how people are using AV to enliven performance, Patel says. “It’s very much about the future.”
Should the musicians need to dampen the sound further, they can drop down curtains hidden behind metal mesh on the second floor. If they wanted to enliven the room, they simple draw the curtains aside and the audience wouldn’t be able to see the difference. These stealthy interventions ensure there aren’t any visible changes to the space.
One of the stealthiest engineering measures comes in the form of hundreds of springs hidden beneath the building’s floor. With a busy subway line rumbling underneath the building and lots of street traffic going past, the designers decided that the best way to acoustically insulate the design was to essentially lift the building on a bed of about 1,000 springs. Like shocks on a car, the springs dissipate vibrations and release the energy in the form of heat.
Lastly, the HVAC system posed another sonic hurdle. Ensure the air conditioning stayed quiet, required a very large fan and long ducts with as few bends as possible.
In the span of 24 hours, I had experienced two very different sides of National Sawdust. When I went to a show, the performers invited the audience to sit down on the floor and get comfortable. Nearly everyone obliged. Though the venue was packed with people—it has a capacity of about 300—it felt comfortable, like we were in someone’s house. Later during the architectural tour, the whole performance space was being used for a rehearsal. The house lights were turned up, the floor was filled with chairs and instruments. And it still felt “right.”
A nonprofit, National Sawdust’s programming seeks to be an incubator for emerging musicians and artists and theme materializes in yet another way: this is Bureau V’s first commissioned project.
“Rather than being bound by convention, it infuses the project with free thinking,” Patel says of the collaboration. “Forcing questions about ‘why can’t this be done’ resulted in solutions that aren’t deployed elsewhere.”