New England Aquarium IMAX
NEAq will use this new theater for running both 3D films with aquatic subjects and conventional 2D films. Also, with a hydraulically movable (up/down) stage, it can be used as a general-purpose lecture hall for NEAq or rented for business or community use.
Architectural historians credit much of the rebirth of Boston's waterfront area to the building of the New England Aquarium in its current location in 1969. They also credit its award-winning design by Cambridge Seven Architects for revolutionizing the modern aquarium experience for visitors through its emphasis on a more naturalistic setting for aquatic life.
NEAq was dramatically updated in 1998 with a major addition by Schwarz/Silver Architects that gave it a more au courant angular appearance.
The new Simons IMAX Theatre successfully continues the Schwarz/Silver theme of a craggy architectural landscape including the surface material, which NEAq's construction management team refers to as "scales." Monel metal panels were specified in both reflective and textured finishes. This cladding gives the new theater an animated and effective shimmering quality as sunlight reflects between the building and the harbor waters.
Breaking Ground in the Harbor
One cannot envy the contractors, a G.B.H. Macomber/ Jay Cashman Joint Venture, as they broke "ground" for this project in April 2000. "Ground" is used advisedly here because most of the project was situated over water.
New piers were to be combined with an existing pier structure to add 10 percent new footprint area. With residents from nearby Harbor Towers' (I.M. Pei & Partners, 1971) watching and hearing every move, a delicate agreement was negotiated with the neighbors to limit pile-driving times to no earlier than 7 a.m. and not at all on weekends.
This limitation in pile-driving hours became ever more critical with each new broken pile that could not be driven to its required depth. NEAq's construction project manager, Jose Luis San Miguel, recalls hearing and feeling the pile-driving shocks from his project office two blocks away and thus sensing almost immediately when another pile-driving effort went in vain.
He recalls that with so many failures in driving piles at their designated locations, the engineers finally gave up and told the builders: "you drive the piles where you can, and we'll come up with a foundation design to fit."
The IMAX Technology
An IMAX theater is much like a special laboratory, needing a precise set of environmental conditions. The Canadian-based IMAX Corporation sends its own technicians to oversee the design and installation of the screen surface and projection system. It also requires that one of its employees runs the films.
With the IMAX 15,000-watt projection lamp so powerful that it can theoretically be seen from the moon, one can understand the need to exercise special care. Each reel of film weighs about 350 pounds (160 kilograms) and is moved around with a special forklift.
Each frame of film is 15 by 70 millimeters, three times the size of frames used in conventional wide-screen theaters. The projection room is also equipped with a $100,000 digital projection system that can display a high-resolution image up to 40 feet (12 meters) wide by 50 feet (15 meters) high.
The screen itself is as tall as a five-story building at 65 feet (20 meters) high by 75 feet (23 meters) wide. It is made of stretched vinyl and has a slight curvature. It must be painted by a special computer-driven painting rig that coats the screen with a special silver paint to increase image brightness.
The current IMAX 3D technology first debuted at Expo '86 in Vancouver. The largest IMAX screen in the world is 97 feet (30 meters) high by 117 feet (36 meters) wide, installed in Sydney.
Extreme care was taken to isolate the theater from external light and sound. Special $8,000 heavy acoustical doors enclose each entry and exit vestibule.
Proving that the "devil [or God] is in the details," project manager Joe Almeida, reported one of their first test showings revealed a puzzling bright, thin vertical line on the screen that they finally traced to a faulty astragal on one of the acoustic doors. Another test revealed a sharp square of light coming from a visitor-viewing window into the projection room.
Sound leaks can be even trickier to trace. A special sound consultant was brought in to both trace and eliminate background noise. Some of the modifications recommended were additional insulation and rooftop fans changed from 4-blade to 16-blade models to reduce flutter noise.
The NEAq IMAX Experience
Visitors arriving in the light-filled IMAX lobby continue to have expansive views to the plaza and harbor. Yet the ceiling feels low and the space intimate. Because of the textured quality of the exterior scales, one may also notice a similar shimmering texture of the wood-laminated wall panels (a serendipitous occurrence says Almeida with a smile).
As you enter the theater from either end of the lobby, there is a feeling of bursting up and out into the expansive auditorium space. The seats are steeply raked but there is plenty of room between aisles. The big, comfortable Irwin Ambassador theater seats contribute to the luxurious feeling.
The attendant hands you a pair of large-paneled 3D glasses with gray-colored polarizing filters. They feel comfortable and more substantial than the old-fashioned cardboard glasses with red and green plastic filters.
Seats are arranged to conform to specific sight limitation lines, but a major advantage of the 3D effect is that even seats on the extreme edge have excellent views. Indeed as you turn your head from side to side, the 3D images appear to bow out to you like a true three-dimensional fishbowl.
Visitors exit by walking up and out to the upper-level lobby, which is both entrance and exit for wheelchair users. Once again, the view of the harbor is expansive. That and the daylighting serve to ameliorate the tight spaces of the upper lobby. It is clear that the designers, given tight site constraints, used great ingenuity to create a path to move 400 people at a time into, through, and out of the IMAX experience.
Despite the huge challenges, the architects, engineers, and NEAq's project and construction management team have done an admirable job of bringing it all together. Careful planning and attention to the "devil in the details" are evident in the striking new theater.
Evan H. Shu, FAIA, is an architect with Shu Associates Inc. in Melrose, Massachusetts. He is a frequent contributor to Architectural Record and publisher and editor of Cheap Tricks, a monthly newsletter for DataCAD users and computer-using architects.