95% of the time, the new Chrysalis Amphitheater in Merriweather Park of Columbia, Maryland is not programmed. Rather than waiting for official events, architecture studio MARC FORNES / THEVERYMANY maximized the potential of the project brief with a design that provides an experience around the clock.
“We want to provide not just a destination, but an experience for the morning jogger, the Sunday walker, the afternoon stroller, as well as anyone who is actually there for a show,” Architecte DPLG Marc Fornes says of the project. “It is an amphitheater, yet it is first a pavilion in the park, an architectural structure, a tree house and a public artwork, ready to be engaged and activated at any given moment.”
EVERY ARCH A FUNCTION
What emerged as the major design opportunity of the project was to create an emblematic and experiential design while satisfying the standard box dimensions required by a theater typology. The answer was developed as a collection of cascading arches that vary not only in size but function, and also provide a structural system.
The largest arch frames Stage Alpha, dimensioned and structured for official events, including the performances of musicians and the requirements of their equipment and lighting rigs. Immediately adjacent to the main stage is Stage Beta, a venue for smaller and more community-based events, and which still provides a platform, equipment/lighting rigs, and seating area, yet is more appropriate for less of a crowd. The engineered terrain ascending to Stage Beta provides an architectural topography on which park visitors can sit, stand and play, and which can be activated itself as a more casual “Speakers Corners” stage set-up.
Wrapping around the back of the structure, further arches are locations for a truck loading dock, a grand staircase entrance, and balconies with views beyond, which during performances serve as the artist backstage area.
LIGHT ON ITS FEET
To achieve a light and organic effect that suits the context of a dense wooded park, the studio took a structurally-oriented approach, building upon over a decade of research and development of lightweight structural shells that unify form, support and experience into a cohesive system. In particular, The Chrysalis further develops principles explored in its “little brother” precedent, Pleated Inflation, completed by the studio in Argeles, France in 2015.
The Chrysalis is similarly generated from a process in which a digital mesh is drawn flat, and all of its segments are transformed into a series of differentiated spring systems, then inflated. Constraints for pleating are added to the inflation protocol to provide extra structural depth.
Layered within the pleated shell, MARC FORNES / THEVERYMANY sits an exoskeleton of steel tubing to support the heavy loads for performances inside, such as lights and other rigging. Engineered by Arup, 70 point loads within can each sustain 2,000 lbs.
FABRICATION BY ZAHNER
In between its aluminum shingles and steel exoskeleton, the project utilized ZEPPS, a patented interface developed by Zahner, and who also fabricated the 7,700 shingles from rolls of aluminum. Each shingle is painted one of four shades of green that is taken from nature and pushed to the point of artificiality. Together they amount to a subtle green gradient that renders The Chrysalis an iconic signal at the same time that it is camouflaged into its natural surroundings.
LIVE AT THE CHRYSALIS
At night The Chrysalis takes on a new life as a glowing concert venue with the structural capacity and flexibility to support the most significant of musical performances. The park boasts a rich musical heritage, having hosted acts from Led Zeppelin to Janis Joplin. The original venue within the park is the Merriweather Post Pavilion, an early work from Frank Gehry.
On September 12th, ground was broken for the largest project to date from MARC FORNES / THEVERYMANY. The Chrysalis: Amphitheater in the Park is the first element in a broader revitalization of Merriweather Park in Columbia, Maryland – a location with a rich history of music, performance and community. Within the park, Chrysalis is situated in the shady Symphony Woods.
The design of the amphitheater aims to satisfy the formal programmatic needs of a structure intended for live performances, and, just as importantly, to provide a space that can be experienced and enjoyed casually, as the majority of the amphitheater’s life is unprogrammed. When not in use for official events, the covered deck, accessible by ramp as well as stairs, provides a destination in the park for informal social interaction among friends and family, and solo strollers, who may seek cover from the sun or rain, or a quiet, contemplative point to look out at the city without being seen.
Several arches of varying sizes characterize the design of the lightweight aluminum surface, each offering their own purpose. The prominent front-facing arch frames Stage A, intended for large music and theater performances. The adjacent arch of Stage B comfortably hosts children’s and informal community-based performances. The arrangement inside can be reconfigured, so that Stage A provides a covered seating place for performances in Stage B. Another arch around the backside is a loading dock, another a public entrance, and others balconies for visitors to enjoy casually.
The design of Chrysalis is achieved through mesh inflation, a form-finding process that follows in the footsteps of Otto Frei and Antoni Gaudí. In the first step of this process, a geometry is anchored at points, and forces are applied. The objective is to inflate the surface and create a space within which the minimum bounding box of a generic theatrical space will fit, so as many different types of shows as possible can be comfortably hosted. The second step is a matter of creating pleats to achieve structural depth. The structurally-performative surface is capable of taking live loads equivalent to the weight of twenty-five cars. The placement of the amphitheater’s footprint carefully negotiates the surrounding trees.
Colors taken from the environment and pushed to a level of artificiality mean on one hand Chrysalis suits its surroundings, and yet on the other, stands out — a visual icon within the park. Blue from the sky translates into a bright cyan, green from the surrounding trees into a more vibrant hue.
MARC FORNES / THEVERYMANY is a New York-based Art and Architecture studio specializing in the intersection of unique, spatial, experience and structural performance. Its method is deeply rooted in computational research and digital fabrication, exploring the dynamic intersection of urban/public space, technology and the environment.
Photo © THEVERYMANY / Zahner