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An innovative new concrete process is enhancing acoustics at the Kennedy Center

Steven Holl Architects developed textured concrete to create an uneven surface that spreads sound evenly throughout an auditorium.

An innovative new concrete process is enhancing acoustics at the Kennedy Center
[Photo: courtesy of Steven Holl Architects]

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Performance spaces often feature elaborate acoustical systems that rely on appliques, such as fabric ceiling panels, to distribute sound. At the Kennedy Center expansion that’s opening in Washington,D.C., this fall, however, the acoustics are built into the architecture. Steven Holl Architects developed textured concrete, modeled on a wadded-up sheet of 10-by-4-foot aluminum, to create an uneven surface on interior, load-bearing walls, helping to spread sound evenly throughout the center’s new auditorium and three rehearsal studios. It’s the company’s first large-scale installation of Crinkle Concrete. “When sound hits a wall, you’re trying to break it up and diffuse it into as many directions as possible,” says Garrick Ambrose, the project architect and senior associate at Steven Holl. “The more random the texture, the better.” Ambrose says the material, the relief of which is about 3 inches thick, could be used to mitigate sound in any space. One potential drawback: The concrete looks so unusual that visitors may feel compelled to rub it, leaving grease marks and softening its edges over time. But Ambrose says the concrete is protected by either a sealer or a white stain that can be easily reapplied. “The patina of someone touching it is not the end of the world.”

A version of this article appeared in the October 2019 issue of Fast Company magazine.

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About the author

Suzanne LaBarre is the editor of Co.Design. Previously, she was the online content director of Popular Science and has written for the New York Times, the New York Observer, Newsday, I.D

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