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An Architect with Jazz Hands

Lauren Murrow | January 7, 2013 | Story Music

OVER THE PAST 12 YEARS, Mark Cavagnero has designed 20 high-profile buildings in the Bay Area and won scores of awards. But as I tail him around the sawdust-covered site of his latest baby—the SFJazz Center in Hayes Valley, opening January 21st—it feels like I’m chasing after a kid showing off his new fort. Clad in his favored ensemble of layered knits and a professorial blazer, topped with a hard hat and a neon-orange construction vest, the ruggedly handsome architect ducks steel beams and vaults up plywood ramps, giddy with excitement as he chats with contractors, strokes finishes, and snaps iPhone pics. Painters have arrived; seats are being installed this week; ceramic mural tiles are en route—and Cavagnero thinks it’s all “really cool.”

Indeed, the SFJazz Center has been a labor of love for the 55-year-old, who is known for prominent commissions like the airy ODC Theater, the Oakland Museum, the Palace of the Legion of Honor, and the Sunset’s light-flooded Sava Pool. A lifelong John Coltrane fan, Cavagnero saw this endeavor as an attempt to create a new chapter in San Francisco’s storied jazz history—a past that includes the glory days of the ’40s and ’50s, when the Fillmore’s smoky nightclubs played host to the likes of Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, and Duke Ellington. And he’s breaking many rules of concert-hall design to do it. (The first one hits you before you even enter the building: The entire exterior is sheathed in glass, typically the enemy of acousticians for its sound-deflecting quality.)

To get into “the mindset of what jazz should feel and look like,” Cavagnero says, he and SFJazz founder Randall Kline crisscrossed the country touring jazz clubs, classic concert halls, dive bars, and even Unitarian churches. In the end, major inspiration came not from a New Orleans nightclub or a vaunted theater, but from Boston’s Old South Meeting House, a 1729 building that served as the launching ground for the American Revolution. Sound quality wasn’t one of its selling points, but Cavagnero and Kline loved the space. “It had the intimacy and intensity we were looking for,” says Cavagnero. “It’s more about people coming together than who’s onstage.” Clearly, the center is slated to be far more than a typical jazz club. Its concert space will encompass 9,000 square feet and seat up to 700 people; the building will also include rehearsal spaces, an 80-person ensemble room, and a digital recording classroom. The project, which is expected to cost $64 million (mostly from private donors, including one who gave $20 million anonymously), presented a unique challenge: How do you evoke the close-knit feeling of a typical jazz joint in a building the size of a city block?

Cavagnero’s first convention-toppler was doing away with the standard proscenium arch that forms a barrier between the audience and the performers. Gone, too, is the dreaded nosebleed section—instead, audience members will surround the stage on all sides. The steeply raked seating means that no ticket holder will be more than 45 feet from the performers, and the first three rows of seats will be removable to allow for standing room and dancing. Although the electronics are complex—as many as 28 electricians worked simultaneously on the site during construction—there will be few visible speakers, strobes, or light fixtures. “We wanted it to feel very focused and effortless,” says Cavagnero. To enhance the nightclub feel, there will be three bars, and the custom theater seats will even have built-in cup holders.

As for the all-important acoustics, Cavagnero worked closely with Sam Berkow, an acoustician best known for his work on Jazz at Lincoln Center in Manhattan. “Sam would say, ‘You can’t do that. It just isn’t done,’” says Cavagnero, grinning. “And we’d say, ‘OK, just pretend that we could—what might that look like?’” In a typical concert hall, he explains, only 50 percent of the sound comes from the instruments themselves; the other 50 percent comes from the speakers. But the SFJazz Center is designed to accommodate unplugged acoustic performances as well as acts that use a sound system. The theater’s walls and ceiling are built from a graded system of painted black concrete, insulation material, mesh, and slats of solid white oak that absorb and disperse sound. “If you’re a purist, you’ll be able to hear the fingers hitting the keys,” Cavagnero says, striking his hard hat as if it were piano ivories.

And then, of course, there’s all that glass. Cavagnero and Berkow employed a battery of design innovations to ensure that it won’t compromise the acoustics within, including meticulously graded insulation within the theater’s ceiling and sidewalls, airtight soundproof doors, and double panes of hermetically sealed glass outside. The extras were worth it, Cavagnero says, because the glass is crucial to the way he wants the building to draw in the surrounding neighborhood. Many of the interior rooms are visible from the street, including the café kitchen (owned by Slanted Door chef Charles Phan), the rehearsal spaces, and even parts of the stage itself. Transparent doors on both ends of the second-floor lobby fold out to open-air terraces.

In contrast to the grand and venerable War Memorial Opera House and Davies Symphony Hall a couple of blocks away, here you’ll be able to watch the musicians play, admire the murals by Sandow Birk and Elyse Pignolet, grab a drink at the café bar, and peer into the rehearsal spaces—all without a ticket. “Compared to the opera and symphony buildings, SFJazz is like a screaming, impetuous teenager,” says Cavagnero. “It wants to be seen and heard.”

Originally published in the January 2013 issue of San Francisco.

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