This Aluminum Snowflake Has The Acoustic Smarts Of A Gothic Cathedral

Lamar Anderson Lamar Anderson

This project won the 2013 Architizer A+ Popular Choice Award in the Architecture + Fabrication category. See the full list of winnershere.

Acoustics are one of the trickiest parts of architecture because you can’t see them. And since all those good vibrations involve a hodgepodge of equipment that no one wants to look at, managing the visuals of sound requires lots of compromise. Architects and audiences usually prefer smooth planes and finished ceilings, which look great but add expense and require more structural supports. It’s a more-is-more mentality.

LMN Architects wanted to try a streamlined approach in the University of Iowa School of Music’s new building, which will open in 2016. For the facility’s main concert hall, the architects have prototyped a theatroacoustic system that rolls lighting, sound, and architecture into one curved aluminum-panel screen. Unlike traditional approaches, which treat acoustics and building structure as separate entities, LMN’s design reimagines all the techie hardware as a single sculptural surface that locks into the hall’s overall structure. The architects’ ingenuity—and their evolving bond with a three-axis CNC router—earned them the popular choice prize in the Architecture + Fabrication category of the A+ Awards.

The University of Iowa School of Music’s new building, designed by LMN Architects, is slated to open in the fall of 2016.

If standard acoustic design is a suit of armor, LMN’s system is a particularly inventive fig leaf. The architects used a parametric model to shape 946 unique composite aluminum panels into a single form with all the right apertures for speaker housing, theatrical and house lighting, and even fire sprinklers. Acoustic reflection panels are concealed underneath. “The intent was to unite a series of components that are required for a room like this,” explains LMN principal Stephen Van Dyck, “into a unified system or gesture that would become the primary sculptural expression of the room.”

Van Dyck adds that while he’s not aware of a modern concert hall that wraps these functions into one surface, the idea is not unique. “Gothic cathedrals would do the same with their vaulted ceilings, uniting sound, structure, and light into a cohesive gesture,” he writes. “We see this as a similar, integrated approach.”

Despite that historical proof of concept, the architects had to make their composite aluminum panel version work—and demonstrate its feasibility to the university. Using their parametric model to generate fabrication data, they made full-scale prototypes of the system’s components with the CNC router, and built about a dozen models along the way.

“The biggest win from our in-house prototyping was proving that it could be done,” writes Van Dyck. “Showing prototype components to the acousticians, builders, and clients convinced them all that a system this intricate and unique could work.”

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Images courtesy of LMN Architects