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Nick Boulter on Performing Arts Spaces

Nick Boulter discusses Arup’s latest project in Singapore and more.

Nick Boulter on Performing Arts Spaces


June 28th, 2011

Multinational firm Arup is behind many of the world’s landmark arts spaces such as the Sydney Opera House, New York’s Guggenheim, and Singapore’s ArtsScience Museum and Fusionpolis’s Genexis Theatre.

Currently spearheading the refurbishment of the Victoria Concert Hall and Victoria Theatre in Singapore, we speak with Nick Boulter, their Acoustics and Theatre Consulting Leader here.


SOTA, Singapore, photo by Patrick Bingham-Hall

Can you describe Arup’s role in the Victoria Concert Hall and Theatre project?

Arup are the project theatre and acoustic consultants. A key part of this role has been to work with the National Arts Council, the Singapore Symphony Orchestra and local arts groups to develop the Brief for the project. The Brief set out the vision for the two main venues and how this could be translated into specific spatial and technical requirements, now and into the future.


Victoria Concert Hall, Singapore, photo by Christopher Dales

We have been working with the rest of the design team to develop these ideas into a coordinated design which is currently being tendered.

Once the project is completed, audiences and performers can look forward to dramatically improved experience at the venues. There will be better technical facilities, more space for performers back stage, and better acoustics and sightlines in both venues.


Fusionpolis night view, Singapore, courtesy of JTC

What are the important considerations when designing performing arts spaces?

It is vital to understand what the spaces are to be used for. There is no such thing as a generic performing arts space. The acoustic and technical provisions have to be aligned with the potential uses.

Having said that, it is also important to provide flexibility and the ability to make changes at a later date as new and better technologies come along. Central to this is an appropriate and powerful technical infrastructure, and by this we are talking about good structural, electrical and spatial provisions. The items of hardware that connect to the ends of that infrastructure can be decided later – indeed, that is the most appropriate strategy given the rapid changes that are happening with theatre technical systems. If you design a system around a specific item of equipment, you run the risk that it will be out of date by the time the project is ready to receive that equipment, and you close the door to future changes.

A conscientious designer must always have an eye on the cost of what he designs. Understanding how to get best value out of a limited budget is one of the most vital skills a designer can have.


SOTA, Singapore, photo by Darren Soh

What are the key challenges?

There are enormous challenges with any performing arts space. The complexity of the systems that have to be incorporated is daunting and requires a rigorous and extensive degree of coordination if they are to be made to work well and efficiently. This can only work through a holistic and iterative design process which requires buy-in from all the design teams.


SOTA at night

There are undoubtedly some major technological changes on the way. Performance lighting still relies heavily on traditional lamps but we are getting closer to a time when this can be done with much more energy efficient and compact low-energy systems. We are not there yet, but when that is possible, there will be a big impact on the space and air conditioning requirements.

And the opportunities being presented?

The opportunities that come with the convergence of the performance technologies are really exciting. We are starting to see more and more use of video and projection in theatre, driven by the ease to which media can be controlled by digital networks. With handheld devices becoming more ubiquitous, operators are looking at using these as part of the theatre experience.


Marina Bay Sands, Singapore, photo by Paul McMullin

We are increasingly challenged during the early design stages to recognise and incorporate major advances in the stage engineering world. As shows get bigger and offer more ’wow’ for audiences, a lot of that is thanks not only to clever lighting, but also to stage engineering effects. The loads exerted on the theatre structure are often immense, and creating provision for all of the main state-of-the-art gadgets is also a major part of what we do.


Other projects: Gardens by the Bay, Singapore, drawing by Gustafson Porter

At Live! Singapore 2011, you touched on how urban redevelopment often incorporates around cultural infrastructure. Can you elaborate?

There have been many attempts to use cultural buildings to stimulate urban redevelopment and enhancement. Some have been really successful, others less so. My experiences (mostly overseas) have highlighted the importance of having a well thought out business plan that will result in these spaces having a viable future once the contractors have left the site. Often funding is split between capital and revenue components and it is vital that the understandably excited potential venue operators are not too ’creative’ with their projections of future revenue.

An underused arts facility is particularly sad to see. But when this works well, and the new arts facilities generate a ’buzz’, it is easy to see how the local communities benefit. For me, whilst being in an audience at an event is a special thing, taking part in the event is a more profound experience. Giving a community the opportunity to participate and experience this can provide a neglected area with a new confidence to move forward.


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