Deep roots for a Montana music barn
January 5, 2017
In 1947, composer Benjamin Britten settled in Aldeburgh, a coastal town in eastern England. Soon after, he cofounded a music festival that turned the area into a destination for classical music lovers worldwide.
Over the years the event outgrew Aldeburgh’s churches and town halls, leading organizers to seek alternatives. “A letter from Stephen Reiss, the Festival manager and secretary, to Ove Arup in 1965 said that they had the opportunity of leasing one of the disused malt houses at [nearby village] Snape,” engineer Derek Sugden wrote in the Arup Journal two years later. “Could we survey it and say whether it was possible to convert it into a concert hall and also provide opera facilities?”
Thus began a collaboration that spanned the next three decades, with Arup working on six venues at the site. Since its opening, the concert hall has been recognized as one of the world’s finest.
From Suffolk to Montana
In 1996, acoustician Raj Patel worked with Sugden on the renovation and expansion of Snape Maltings. By 2008, he was leading Arup’s global acoustics, audiovisual, and theatre consulting practice from New York.
One Saturday he opened his email to find a note from philanthropists Cathy and Peter Halstead. “We are a small foundation thinking of building a small [150-seat] concert hall on a 10,000-acre pristine site in Montana. We’ve been very impressed with the acoustics of Snape Maltings, with which you are involved,” it read. “Would we be able to sit down with a member of your acoustic team?”
Patel called them that afternoon, and within weeks the couple was in the firm’s New York office experiencing Snape and other venues it had inspired in the SoundLab. The Arup team, led by Patel and Alban Bassuet, soon visited the Halsteads’ site, an 11,500-acre working ranch near the town of Fishtail, Montana. They began working out the masterplan and concept design for what would become the Tippet Rise Art Center.
The center, which opened last summer, has much in common with its British predecessor: an educational mission, a commitment to resource conservation, and a deep interest in blending classical music, visual art, and nature.
A barn for music
And then, of course, there’s the concert hall. Arup worked closely with the Halsteads to modify Snape’s form for a smaller venue.
Wyoming-based design-build firm Gunnstock Timber Frames also helped develop the design, drawing upon a deep knowledge of American vernacular architecture. Gunnstock’s Laura Viklund found inspiration in Snape as well as traditional New England barns: “Snape has a pretty relatable barn shape, and that was something that the clients liked,” she said. The Halsteads reasoned that the familiar silhouette could help make classical music less intimidating to the broad audience they aimed to attract.
The Olivier Barn’s interior — “the timber roof structure, wood ceiling, and the flattening of the ceiling at the peak,” said Viklund — was also directly inspired by the earlier project.
Snape was, in fact, the first concert hall to use this distinctive form. It was adapted and modified in profile from the original malting house shape, giving Derek Sugden an opportunity to test a long-standing theory. “Derek had hypothesized that a pitched roof would result in aspects of the acoustics that would make it quite compelling: very strong early reflections that come in from the top of the room that help reinforce your sense of the height of the space, coupled with strong lateral reflections from the walls to create a particular type of enveloping, intimate sound,” Patel said.
After successfully proving this theory at Snape, Arup used pitched roofs on a number of other projects in the following decades: the Sevenoaks School south of London, for instance, and the University of Oxford’s Jacqueline du Pré Music Building.
Although the team decided to use a similar form at Tippet Rise early on in the project, the design process involved far more than simply tweaking drawings from earlier buildings. “You can’t keep the same pitch when you change the size of the room, because acoustics don’t scale like that,” Patel said. “But the concept works as long as you get the pitch right relative to the length, width, and height of the room.”
An avid concertgoer since childhood, Derek Sugden thought about music venues in terms of their overall architectural experience and insisted on this approach for his projects. “It is dangerous to talk about acoustics in an abstract way, to divorce them from their physical surroundings,” he wrote in the Arup Journal.
The article praises pioneering acoustician Leo Beranek for collecting and presenting data from more than 50 venues around the world in his 1962 book, Music, Acoustics & Architecture, helping designers translate subjective reactions to these spaces into strategies for their own projects. Sugden used this data to compare Snape with renowned venues like the Boston Symphony Hall and Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw.
The Tippet Rise design process also included careful consideration of a range of historic precedents. Arup replicated the acoustics of successful music rooms around the world in its SoundLab, using the precedents to better understand and communicate about different options for the new Montana center. One venue in particular, Hungary’s Esterháza, became a key point of reference for the project; the final design for the Olivier Barn at Tippet Rise combines elements of Esterháza and Snape.
Sound and material
The two buildings are also linked by their warm interiors. At Snape, brick is coupled with wood for the stage and roof; steel is used for the structure, balustrades, and various accents. “It’s a really simple palette of three or four materials in a balanced composition,” Patel said.
The Olivier Barn employs timber throughout, strengthening the barn reference. To ensure an acoustic performance similar to Snape’s (paying particular attention to bass sounds), the team replaced the brick walls with heavy timber. Because Montana winters are much harsher than Suffolk’s, they also incorporated thermal insulation to allow year-round use.
Unlike Snape, the Olivier Barn has windows, allowing musicians composing and rehearsing at all hours to view Montana’s famous big sky and providing a stunning backdrop for performances. Incorporating glass into the concert hall without sacrificing sound quality required particular attention to sizing, positioning, and sound isolation.
“Snape Maltings was very progressive for its time in terms of sustainability,” Patel said. Knowing that it would be expensive to heat and cool the large venue, the design team took advantage of the moderate local climate to create a thermal control system that relied on passive principles. Arup repurposed the malt-house vents so that hot air would rise up through the stacks and exit at the top, drawing in cooler air from outside — eliminating the need for mechanical cooling on all but the hottest days.
The Halsteads followed in this tradition for Tippet Rise, encouraging the design team to develop an ambitious sustainability plan for the entire site. Olivier Barn’s design includes photovoltaic panels, a ground source heat pump, a rainwater collection system, and a natural digester that makes grey- and blackwater safe for use in replenishing groundwater.
The building is currently targeting LEED Gold.
Questions or comments for Raj Patel? Contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Watch Derek Sugden discuss the development of Arup’s acoustics practice, the Snape Concert Hall, and the value of creative idleness here.