Sights and Sounds: Why Northrop’s Pipe Organ Sounds So Magnificent

Sep 21, 2018

Joshua Cushner is a principal at Arup, an organization of architects, engineers and specialists in the construction industry. Cushner was the lead acoustician for the renovation of Northrop, which re-opened in 2014. He led a team of theater, acoustic, and technology designers from offices in New York and San Francisco. Ahead of the Minnesota Orchestra Celebrating Northrop’s Restored Pipe Organ events Oct 12-13, we asked Cushner specifically about his work with the historic instrument as part of the remodel. He explains:

From 2008 to completion of construction in 2014, I was part of a team that transformed Northrop by honoring its past and creating its new future. We began with a single page of ambitions, as envisioned by Steven Rosenstone and team, and were given wide leeway to create a new jewel within the envelope of the old Northrop building. From the start, it was clear that the new building had to still ‘feel like Northrop’ but perform at a world-class level. 

After studying a range of possible forms and shapes, our team agreed on a three-balcony horseshoe arrangement for the theater that would suit the project best. This brought more than 80 percent of the seats within 100 feet of the stage, giving patrons the ability to see gestures and facial expressions of performers but maintaining proper room volume for great concert acoustics. This careful balance of visual and acoustic intimacy is accomplished in very few venues of this size.

Once the basic form was set, we were tasked to determine how the famed Northrop Pipe Organ would be re-inserted into the venue. For this work, we called upon Jack Bethards from Schoenstein & Co., a renowned organ builder located only a few towns from our San Francisco office. Jack is a master at his craft, and he helped us integrate the great instrument into the new venue with confidence. We kept the primary voicing pipes in their historic location above the stage, and were able to move the largest ranks to the sides of the proscenium where they can fill the new Northrop with a great roar. 

Many variations of the room and pipe organ designs were auditioned in the Arup SoundLabs in New York and San Francisco, which allowed our team to render full 3-D soundscapes from our detailed computer model. This provided our team with an augmented reality experience of Northrop prior to construction – giving us the tools necessary to shape and craft the final sound. 

As you experience this great inaugural concert of the Northrop Pipe Organ with the Minnesota Orchestra, I invite you to listen to the clarity of the ranks, be amazed by the envelopment of the room, and feel the raw power of this great instrument.

 

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