Architectural Details: Wheeler Kearns’ “The Alice” Is an Acoustical Retreat

The Alice at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre tailors its acoustic installations to its various sonic environments.

Sydney Franklin Sydney Franklin

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Designing acoustics for a performance space is exceptionally technical. Each individual theater, concert hall or opera house has its own detailed specifications, making the acoustical setup a particularly challenging feat. But what about designing for acoustics outside the main space: in the halls, lobby, rehearsal rooms and other event areas? These programs also need to be equipped with proper acoustics in order to combat — in some cases, enhance — the sound surrounding them.

Take Wheeler Kearns Architects’ recent job on the Alice B. Rapoport Center for Education & Engagement in Chicago. An adaptive reuse project that transformed a 10,000-square-foot former office space, the new nonprofit educational center sits above the famous theater situated in the heart of the city. It was built out to expand community engagement and outreach programs in the theater, allowing it to grow its programming overall by 30 percent.

The design team used several acoustic products to soundproof the entire space because each individual room contains its own different sonic environments. The reception area and lobby features the most striking installation with a meandering curtain of double-sided, acoustical wood slats. The walls are lined with a clean striped design of oak and acoustical black fabric. While visually impactful, the design also helps hush the noise coming from the crowds that might wander throughout the space during events.

The design for the wood slat panels was inspired by the center’s late trustee and chair of the company’s Education and Community Engagement Committee, Alice B. Rapoport. Wheeler Kearns sought to honor Rapoport’s legacy as an avid trail runner by creating an earthy tone throughout the entire space. Local manufacturer Greatlakes Architectural Millworks helped the team bring nature to life within the space by using woodsy materials.

The acoustic design also alludes to a Venetian contour curtain as if it’s being pulled back and folded to reveal a stage. Designed by the project architect Chris-Annmarie Spencer, these slatted walls define the threshold between the public and learning spaces. The curtains part — or break — where the entrance to each studio space begins.

The center’s two large rehearsal labs, which are also bordered by the wood-slat acoustic panels, host auditions, seminars and other workshops. Wheeler Kearns called upon Threshold Acoustics and Schuler Shook to help them creatively construct acoustics that could drown out the noise from the surrounding rooms and allow occupants to easily converse, sing and act without interruption.

“In a space like this, you don’t want to kill the sound or deaden it,” said Tom Bader, principal at Wheeler Kearns. “You want to isolate it and maintain the speech as intelligible. If you walk into the room, though, it is very, very quiet. It’s a cocoon of isolation.”

That was tricky to do because the building wasn’t even designed for this typology. To shield noise coming from the adjacent street, the architects had to design a second butt-glazed glass wall spaced across a 3-foot zone from the building’s glass windows. This design decision, along with the wall slats that line the interior walls, allows these rooms to exist in utter solitude, separated in sound from the rest of the facility.

Throughout the project, the architects also specified the BASWA Phon acoustical plaster system to cover the ceilings and absorb additional sound waves. This seamless product looks just like plaster and can be applied to flat, curved, domed and vaulted surfaces. In this case, Wheeler Kearns installed it on each ceiling and created sporadic large holes where round concrete columns extend upward like tree trunks rising above the forest. These columns are lit from above like light coming from the sky.

Now a warm and inviting space for local students, community members and Chicago’s youth to gather and study the arts, “The Alice” features a premier acoustic system that can’t be detected. From the perfectly plastered ceiling to the doubled-glazed window walls and wood-slat panels, the space simply looks as if it’s been retrofitted with a sleek and soft new vibe. But behind the products that cover every inch of the facility are sound-blocking buffers that make it a better place in which to create loud art.

Wheeler Kearns is now beginning phase 2 of construction on the project with general contractor Bulley & Andrews, during which they will duplicate the lab space and enhance the acoustics even further.

Photography by Steve Hall + Nick Merrick Photography, and diagrams courtesy Wheeler Kearns

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