The sculptural furniture and objects Brooklyn artist Matthias Pliessnig handcrafted from steam-bent wood had long captured the eye of Trey Trahan, FAIA. In 2015, when his firm, New Orleans–based Trahan Architects, was commissioned to renovate Atlanta’s Alliance Theatre, he seized the opportunity to bring Pliessnig’s sinuous designs into an architectural context.
Not only would the custom-shaped and -positioned slats provide outstanding acoustics inside the theater, but steam-bending the wood would be more efficient than milling it on a lathe, which Trahan knew could be wasteful based on previous work with precision-milled wood. “I was fascinated with how one could go about the process of creating complicated shapes in a more ecological way,” he says.
The challenge here was how to scale the artist’s handcrafted quality to outfit a 650-seat theater. After some iterating, Pliessnig and Trahan’s team derived a technique to use steam to soften hundreds of reclaimed white oak slats, each ½-inch square in section, and then bend them into place around the theater to create a serpentine surface along the theater’s balcony railing and side terraces.
To achieve Pliessnig’s vision, Trahan collaborated with Plaistow, N.H.–based wood fabricator CW Keller Associates. Working in Rhino, the team devised a model that called for approximately 100,000 linear feet of wood slats placed around the theater. In locations where the acoustics needed a reflective surface, the slats were spaced close together; where absorption was desired, the slats were set further apart. Thanks to the model’s accuracy and precision, CW Keller could specify the placement of each strand to a 1⁄32-inch tolerance.
CW Keller’s engineers then went to the shop and used the model to laser-project the exact location of each strand onto a wooden jig framework, which in turn was attached to a steel armature. The fabricators used a similar augmented-reality environment to install the completed framework panel in the theater itself. The wood strips are stained a rich, dark brown, enhancing the warmth and ambiance of the interior. “Over time, as audience members touch the surface, it will take on a beautiful patina,” Trahan says.
The result is human-scale, handcrafted millwork made possible with the latest 3D technology, which merges design, sustainable construction, and acoustical performance to challenge the relationship between a theater and its audience. “I want to just hug this thing and touch it,” says juror James Garrett Jr., AIA.
Alliance Theatre’s leadership could not agree more. “The design,” says the Jennings Hertz artistic director Susan V. Booth, “inherently unites each performance’s audience into a fostered and connected community, and provides not [simply] a frame for the work we do, [but moreover] a graceful conduit for the work to land in the heads and hearts of those folks.”