Bringing out the theatrical element at Gulbenkian

Upgrading the AV at the multi-purpose Gulbenkian Grande Auditio involved a series of issues. Paul Milligan spoke to the consultant behind this incredible project, which is now home to one of the most technologically advanced performance venues of its kind.

Most integrators and consultants have endured working on a Grade-1 listed building.  Not many will have faced the added complication of dealing with a series of highly intricate bespoke stage elevators, all constructed in the 1960s. 

Well that was the case for Sam Wise, the design director of Venue Strategies, when he designed the refurbishment of the 1,300-seater Grande Auditório at Fundação Calouste Gulbenkian, a charitable foundation funded by the profits of the oil magnate of the same name.  Built during the late 1960s, and opened in 1969 (and mostly untouched since then), the Grand Auditorio is a multi-purpose music performance venue, which is home to orchestral concerts, musical theatre, opera, cinema and conferences.   

The UK arm of the foundation sought out his then employer, Arup Acoustics and Theatre Consulting, to advise on the project, having heard of Arup’s work on the Kings Place concert halls in London.   A visit there clinched their interest. After a presentation to the foundations’ board in Portugal, Arup won the contract and work began.  

Halfway through the project Wise retired from Arup to establish his own private practise (Venue Strategies) but wanted to see the job through to the end. Arup agreed to the client’s request for him to continue running the project.  

The original brief from the client was simply to refurbish the concert hall stage technical systems.  During the original design in the early 1960’s AV was a very different animal, and a sound system had never been installed at the venue as it had historically always been hired in for each individual performance.  Another consideration was that the audio and video elements had to coordinate with 8 highly complex motorised stage floor lifts, some of which travelled vertically up to 11m out of the floor.    These were starting to fail because of its age. 

The eventual scope of the project that Wise managed for Arup encompassed new performance and concert lighting, new AV throughout, an upgrade of all stage machinery, a brand new site wide PA/VA and acoustics improvements. The project also included a complete replacement of mechanical and electrical systems and architectural cleaning and restoration.

“Our first job is always to talk to the client and create the brief, so we can establish what the client wants and what the budget is for it,” says Wise.  “I wouldn’t take a job that didn’t involve writing a brief, if a client just wants an equipment list, they can go to someone else.  I want to understand what the buildings functions are and look at how the systems being proposed fulfill the functions of the building and the client’s aspirations.”

One benefit Wise found early on was that the custodians of the venue still had the original building drawings from the 1960s.  It also found a working 1:20 scale model of the stage and its under-stage lifts from 1966. Wise was able to use these throughout the project to help implement his designs.  “Audio and video are two elements we use to create a live performance experience. For me, AV is a show design tool.  The show could be a conference, but it could be a staged opera.  Projectors can be used in a conventional way for a conference, either front or back projection.  But you can also use it as a visual backdrop, a tapestry behind a symphony orchestra.”  

In a process Wise diplomatically calls ‘interesting’, the client had already decided in advance of the brief being written what the construction period and master budget maximum would be. “It was like working with a government department where someone from above decides on a budget and everyone else has to work out how to deliver it all.  I have to say the commitment level from the designers and workers in Portugal, on the idea of delivering it all together, was tremendous. Where drawings were sometimes thin on this project, due to shortage of time, everyone used their best endeavours and experience to get it done.”   This factor meant the majority of the work was completed on-site.   There was certainly no shortage of determination to get the project finished on time, with the final phase of the installation seeing as many as 200 people working simultaneously on it, around the clock.

Wise, who describes himself as a musician at heart, had a big task on his hands delivering an audio system worthy of the stunning architecture and good basic acoustics of the Grand Auditorium.  

“For the audio requirements we have a symphonic concert orchestra requiring only pre-concert announcements and voice alarm. Then we have the cinema, which used portable speakers halfway down the stage and surround loudspeaker panels built into the walls which were ruining the sound distribution and the sound wasn’t going where you wanted it to.   They were getting programme material from the New York Met broadcast live in 5.1 surround sound, which would have worked beautifully in your living room, but the surround was not matched with the signals behind the screen. It was a complete clash in the auditorium between the time of arrivals, causing audio confusion, because if you move around the seats in a large auditorium you change the relative time of arrival between the front and the side.   If you tuned up the systems so the side and the rear signals came at a perfect time for one seat you could move 10 metres back and it would be a complete catastrophe.  You lost all intelligibility of the dialogue.”

To solve this Wise specified cinema loudspeakers behind a new perforated cinema projection screen so the main screen audio would remain synchronised with the picture no matter where you sat.  Then each surround loudspeaker has an independent programmable delay channel. Side surrounds were recessed into existing wall pockets for heritage reasons.

For true cinema shows, surround effects and screen dialogue are a different type of audio material. The surround loudspeakers face across the wide room, but arrival times of surround audio do not conflict with screen dialogue. For the Met Opera performances main and surround audio content are similar due to live broadcast. So, inside the wall pockets, the surround loudspeakers were installed on rotating platforms, so that they could rotate to point towards the rear of the house, then screen and surround sound travel in the same direction.   Arrival times match much better, improving clarity, while the surrounds add some spaciousness.

Meyer Sound M’elodie loudspeaker arrays provide the main coverage in the Grand Auditorium, and with AVID mixers, were the client’s preferred brands.  Nexo PS Series loudspeakers (used by Wise on previous jobs) were used to compliment the Meyer, with PS8 for side surround and balcony fills, and PS10 in the rear surrounds, which had a longer throw.  The Nexo PS8 was compact to fit in the side surround pockets, but has a rotatable horn and asymmetric beam. This is set to angle down, though the cabinets are vertical for architectural reasons, giving even cinema surround sound distribution across the hall.

The cinema screen loudspeakers and processing are from QSC.  The Bosch PA/VA installed was new across the majority of the site, “We moved from a single button ‘everybody out’ scenario to a managed system, where you could look for the fire before stopping a show, and you could manage evacuation. This also allowed zoned paging and show relay throughout the other public and staff areas,” says Wise.  
The Auditorium was capable of web-streaming live performances before the refurbishment, but like the audio, everything had been used on a temporary basis, so this project allowed them to install permanent systems, including broadcast-quality Panasonic HD cameras and a Sony video mixer.

Looking back now its all completed, what are Wise’s thoughts on the project he invested so much in? “Left behind for me, was the feeling that we did a great job, with great gear.  We like to work with architects who want to deliver a complete and workable building that’s architecturally excellent. They help our work look more beautiful and we help their work be more practical. At the end of the project, we think we’ve both won. Teresa Nunes da Ponte Arquitectura was great to work with, as was the rest of the team. We would recommend them highly, as I would my former colleagues at Arup who provided great support for this project.”

Kit List

Ampetronic service counter AFILS
AKG microphones
Beyer Dynamic microphones
Bosch IR translation and hearing impaired systems
Bosch paging and voice alarm equipment
BSS DI boxes and Soundweb London network interfaces
Meyer Sound M’elodie loudspeaker arrays, Galileo Callisto processing
Neumann Microphones
Nexo PS8 & PS10 cinema/effects surround loudspeakers
QSC main LCR cinema loudspeakers and processing
Sennheiser gun mics
Shure digital wireless microphones and IEM system

Kit List

Panasonic HD cameras, HD projectors and flat panel displays
Sony video mixer, and digital cinema projector

Kit List

AMX HD matrix router, interfaces and associated AV controllers
Extron Audio/Video Distribution Amplifiers
Gefen HDMI interfaces