According to a talent buyer for one of the US’s large live music event producers, “There will be no live concerts as we know them until the performers, the audiences, and the promoters feel safe. And for that to happen there will either need to be a vaccine or a cure.”
That is a reality that seems to be ignored by most of the articles we’ve seen about what can be done to public venues in order for performances to restart in light of COVID-19. We can talk about air circulation, about clumping seats into small groups, about spacing people in lobbies and bathrooms, but it won’t make any difference until we can answer some essential questions. Audiences will be able to return only when these 5 essential questions can be answered.
WHAT IS NECESSARY FOR PUBLIC PERFORMANCES TO RESUME?
At least one of three things must happen:
1 – Vaccine. If a vaccine is discovered and deployed throughout the world, audiences will return.
2 – Cure. Short of a vaccine, if a 100% failsafe cure is found, audiences will be able to return.
3 – Rapid Testing. And short of a vaccine or a cure, if almost instantaneous failsafe testing becomes cheap and widely available, audiences will be able to return.
Without any of these three above, all the re-design and re-engineering of air filtration systems, seating plans, and bathrooms, will have no impact. Operators are not going to operate, and audiences are not coming.
Architects can’t accelerate these scenarios, and it will likely be some time before a vaccine or cure for COVID-19 is found. But as of midsummer 2020, rapid testing is making swift progress, with promising options including a breath test from Israel and a non-invasive, nearly instantaneous saliva test from Ohio State University. If a rapid test is approved, architects and venue operators can begin to seriously prepare performance spaces for deployment. The challenge in doing so is the requirement to gather people for pre-entry testing without increasing their discomfort and/or risk of infection.
Let’s look at the impact of the availability of rapid testing on the various types of venues, including smaller indoor music and theater performance spaces, Broadway theaters, larger indoor performance venues, smaller outdoor performance venues, and large outdoor performance venues: The variables that will need to be solved for each of these types of venues are time and space. The number of testing stations, the time it takes for each test including getting a result, and the size of the audience will impact the requirements for external gathering space large enough to accommodate audiences and social distancing.
IF RAPID TESTING BECOMES A REALITY, HOW CAN PRE-SCREENED AUDIENCES GATHER SAFELY?
TSA-like screening space needs to be established at the front and stage entrance of every theater. If you look at the newest popular music venues, there’s no orchestra level — it’s basically a general admission space. When you might attract three to five or six thousand people to these spaces for performances, we’ve learned the hard way that you just can’t open the doors at 8:00 for a concert. A significant amount of time and effort needs to go into screening performers, employees and audiences before the start of any performance.
With rapid testing, we will need to create large gathering spaces for pre-screened audiences to wait for testing. In many instances, even if they are temporary, these large waiting areas will need to be covered to be able to protect audiences from the elements. Air circulation in these holding areas will need to be one-directional, away from the patrons, and will need to be 100% fresh air.
In older cities where performance venues are often clustered, there is an opportunity to convert surrounding streets from automobile to pedestrian use and to cover them initially with tenting material. If these large and safe gathering areas become a new normal, however, we may well see a trend of converting these spaces to permanently-covered grand glass-roofed arcades, such as the Galleria in Milan.
As the audiences wait to be screened, they can be offered refreshments and entertainment, avoiding a rush to the theater at curtain time.
Once inside the venues, lobbies will also be bigger. Traditionally, Broadway lobbies were designed to be small, because the only thing they did was provide space for ticket purchases and pick-up. But now, owners have realized you can generate revenue in the lobby, and this has led to a steady increase in the size of the average lobby. We’ve seen the allocation of lobby space increase from 3 square feet per patron to 7, and more recently even to 11. Social distancing requirements will make this change even more necessary.
Along with a much bigger lobby, we’re going to see restrooms without doors, such as we’re used to at airports. We won’t want lines and touchable door handles, so instead we’ll need to create a circuitous path to get people in and out with minimum friction.
WHAT HAPPENS WHEN A VACCINE OR CURE BECOMES WIDELY AVAILABLE? DOES THE ARCHITECTURE OF NEW PERFORMANCE SPACES GO BACK TO THE WAY THINGS WERE?
The answer is no. Any new theaters, playhouses, and concert halls will need to be designed with the understanding that the arrival of a new virus is always going to be possible. So, to the greatest extent possible, we will need to engineer these new spaces to minimize disruption, even during the next pandemic. Here are some of the long-lasting changes we can expect to see:
Air Circulation: We will need to assure that air circulation will be safe, fresh and still remain silent. Even though everyone will be tested prior to entry, once inside there will still be a chance that someone is ill and doesn’t yet know it. So, how do we keep the entire audience safe?
For a number of decades, starting with the late 1920s movie palaces, large plenum spaces under the main floor audience seating functioned as return air spaces. In recent decades in acoustically sensitive auditoriums, similar plenums were used as the source for air to circulate quietly up from under the audience to be exhausted at the top of the space. This was also a more sustainable approach — it delivered cooled or warm air right to where the audience was seated. Few presentation halls operate this way now; plenums were abandoned after the movie palace era and have only started to be reintroduced for music halls in recent years. We will need to consider the supply plenum below audience seating in all new construction, since it moves the air in the right direction, and provides space for air filtering.
In the past, these plenums could be as much as eight feet high, so huge amounts of air could be moved at extremely low velocity, so as to be quiet enough to not raise the background noise level. This method could work in auditoriums, assembly halls and meeting places, even convention centers. It would require building plenum spaces, which would result in added costs.
Opera-like Seating: For most new performance spaces, we expect to see the old European-style opera house with multiple tiers of box seating become the preferred design approach. These theaters can comfortably accommodate half the audience for a performance in small individual spaces. The orchestra level of these new designs will need to be flexible: in normal, healthy times it can be full. But in times of spreading viruses, the seating will need to be easily pared down for social distancing while maintaining financially viable operation of the venue.
At The Hylton Performing Arts Center in Manassas, VA, half of the 1,200 seats are in a series of tiered boxes, some seating up to twenty people. The orchestral level would need to be modified to seat fewer people, but the boxes can be filled to capacity.
A recent performance space we (Mr. Holzman) constructed may be a worthwhile model going forward. Two horseshoe single row balconies accommodate half the 450 seats in the space – this particular hall has only 300 orchestra seats. Without making physical changes to the space, its capacity could be reduced by a third to accommodate social distancing, and then once the virus has passed – even if it took ten years – could eventually return to full seating.
Dispersed seating has been successful in small, flexible theaters. In this format, groupings of seating clusters are focused on a performance platform. Seating can be movable, fixed and/or pull-out. This concept has been frequently used for spaces up to 400 seats, but it could be used in even larger formats and be combined with balconies.
New Designs — Open: Another one of our projects that is being cited as a possible solution is the Alice Busch Opera Theater in Cooperstown, N.Y., often referred to as Glimmerglass. The walls around the audience are screened with rolling doors to accommodate inclement weather. Otherwise, natural ventilation pervades this open-walled 900-seat hall. So for the right climate and the right seasons, you could have a place with no walls, or movable walls.
HOW WILL WE NEED TO RETROFIT EXISTING PERFORMANCE SPACES?
In houses where there are boxes, the boxes can be left as they are or reworked to fit parties of two, 10 or even 20 people. For the existing venues that are not currently designed like opera houses, they will need to reduce their dependence on large orchestra seating areas. Consideration can be given to moving the performance out into the seating area and installing temporary box-like seating on the former stage platform. Basically evolving to a performance-in-the-round format. This requires theater technology to move with the stage location. As the risk decreases, seats can be added back in.
Space devoted to pre-screening audiences will need to conform to what we’re suggesting for new venues – large spaces where pre-screened audiences can safely gather and socially distance, high-quality air circulation and comfortable temperatures.
HOW WILL WE NEED TO RETROFIT BROADWAY THEATERS?
On a final note, everyone pays attention to Broadway since it is the flagship for theater in this country. We’re likely to pay too much attention to the solutions we come up with for Broadway, because Broadway’s challenges are unique. However, what might be perfect or even necessary for New York may not be a universal solution.
With Broadway theaters, the goal is getting the doors open as quickly as possible. And Broadway has the most difficult problem because it’s been using shoe horns for years to add as many seats as possible, ensuring each theater is maximizing per-show occupancy. Most had very few spare inches to even serve as minimal lobbies. When and if the performance venues on Broadway can solve these challenges, they will be vastly easier for the rest of America to follow.
The question is: where are the additional square feet coming from?
The answer, once again, will be in taking back the streets. For instance, we’re thinking about whether Shubert Alley in Manhattan ought to be converted to a permanent, sheltered, pre-lobby gathering space for multiple theaters. Moreover, on blocks where the theater density is high, we could consider converting the street between Broadway and Eighth Avenue into a pedestrian plaza to serve these purposes.
If the older theaters are going to avoid having to shut down with the next pandemic, they are going to need to find or create new lobby and pre-theater space. For instance, when we restored the New Victory Theater on 42nd Street, our only reasonable choice was to excavate a basement and put a new lobby space below the existing orchestra seats.
The COVID-19 pandemic will have a lasting impact on all current and future performance space. For existing space, the greatest challenge will come when rapid testing becomes available, and that will require significant additional gathering space for pre-screening audiences. For many urban venues, that will require converting streets for pedestrian use on a temporary and – in some cases – permanent basis.
About the authors:
Malcolm Holzman, FAIA, Partner of Steinberg Hart, has planned, programmed, and designed 130 projects for public use; including 75 arts projects during the last five decades. An award-winning architect, his buildings are acknowledged for their evocative nature, technical vision, and singular character. His completed performing arts centers show a diversity of design solutions, reflecting a wide range of new construction and re-purposed existing buildings. The application of regional materials unique to each location to make memorable spaces has resulted in numerous awards.
Rob Steinberg, FAIA is Chairman of Steinberg Hart. Rob is internationally recognized as an expert and design practice innovator in urban planning and mixed-use projects that have resulted in new and thriving communities, both in the United States and China. He is active in several academic and real estate related organizations including his role as ULI Governor, Executive Board Member of SPUR – urban policy research and think-tank, and Policy Advisory Board Member at University of California Berkeley Fisher Center for Real Estate & Urban Economics. Rob is writing a book, “How Architecture Tells – Nine Laws That Will Change the Way You See the World,” scheduled for publication in 2021.