The National Constitution Center (NCC) in Philadelphia, Pa., is dedicated to increasing public understanding of, and appreciation for, the American Constitution. Museum, interpretative center, exhibition gallery, and teaching facility, the Center relies on extensive audiovisual technology to tell the Constitution story – its history and development, and its relevance today.
Conceptually, the NCC is built around the theme of “We the People,” and those familiar words greet and engage visitors as they cross the Center’s lofty open porch to enter the two-story atrium lobby. The phrase sets the theme for a number of interior spaces and serves as the central concept underlying the 30,000 square feet of exhibition gallery on the upper level. The interactive exhibits – more than a hundred in all – were intentionally designed to present the document’s complexities in various ways, to appeal to people of different ages and backgrounds. “We the People” is also the focus of the 350-seat Kimmel Theater, which lies at the heart of the center and is home to the stirring multimedia show entitled “Freedom Rising.”
The NCC is the culmination of a collaborative process that began in 1998 and continued through the Center’s opening on July 4th, 2003. A diverse group of scholars and educators was assembled to lay the intellectual foundation for the exhibits. Pei Cobb Freed & Partners (PCF) served as architects for the 160,000-sq.-ft. building, which also houses an auditorium, classrooms, restaurants, and administrative offices. Exhibit designers Ralph Applebaum Associates created a masterplan for the Center and designed the core exhibits. Audio/video consultants Electrosonic Systems, designed and integrated the A/V systems into the exhibition areas, as well as mapped out a building-wide infrastructure.
The Center stands at the northern end of Independence Mall, opposite Independence Hall where the Constitution was signed in 1787. PCF partners Henry N. Cobb and Ian Bader served as lead designers, and Craig Dumas was project architect. The structure is clothed in limestone and granite rather than brick, giving the building a less formal, lighter feel than the venerable Hall. The architects accentuated the Modernist design with striking geometric forms and underscored its transparency with glass walls and pyramidal skylights.
“Transparency is key to the design,” write the architects. “It emphasizes the responsiveness and openness essential for freedom and self-government, while the building’s diagonal geometry speaks dynamically of the Constitution’s capacity to shape, and be shaped by, the society it governs.”
Transparency is evident in the design of the Kimmel Theater and the main exhibition hall, but on a more subtle level. A tinted glass wall rims the upper wall of the circular theater, allowing visitors to catch glimpses of the gallery while awaiting a performance or exiting the show. From the hall, that same glass wall – here tinted a darker shade – offers hints of events in the theater. One of the highlights of the main hall is a series of dramatic semi-transparent glass panels ringing the outer edge of the annular space, with the full text of the Constitution etched on the face.
“We approached the exhibits on a multi-front basis,” explains Christopher Miceli, the Applebaum designer responsible for the core areas, “integration with the building itself, development of the exhibition experience within the existing framework, and fine-tuning of content. We needed a special environment because this is a special subject, and we wanted it to be memorable to stimulate the senses and create an unforgettable, positive experience.” At the same time, he adds, “It was important to present the material in an objective, unbiased way so that visitors would leave as informed citizens.”
For the A/V designers and integrators, that special environment posed some challenges. “The Applebaum team likes simplicity – a spare straightforward look – but that makes it harder to keep the technology from showing,” admits Andrew Kidd, Electrosonic project manager. The only equipment found in the exhibition gallery is a mixture of screens, projectors, and speakers – everything else is hidden away in the central control room.
“There was an aesthetic requirement to hang little or nothing from the ceiling, so the great majority of the exhibit audio is delivered through floor-mounted loudspeakers sited under grilles set into the flooring,” he explains. In addition, eight video projectors are positioned behind the gallery’s etched glass panels at a distance of some 60 feet from their associated screens. “The glass was being manufactured in Germany, so we performed hours of mock-ups to determine exactly where the required holes should be pre-cut to accommodate the projectors.”
The journey into the Constitution begins in the waiting area for the Freedom Rising show, a narrow ring-like passage designed to convey the nature of the experience to come. A mural of 1787 Philadelphia “gives visitors a sense of peering into the times,” says Miceli, “with 3-D sound providing snippets of conversations about events just before the signing of the Constitution.”
The design and production of the theater’s “Freedom Rising” was masterminded by Donna Lawrence Productions (DLP) to provide a transformative experience “dedicated to connecting visitors in a direct, engaging, and unforgettable way with the story of the Constitution,” Lawrence explains. “The experience incorporates theatrical scenic projections, live talent, and 360-degree media production to create an environment in which visitors will come to see themselves as a force in the life of the Constitution and the Constitution as an ongoing force in all our lives.”
With the support of design director John Murphy, lighting designer Jerome Sirlin, and theatrical designer/architect Dave Sirola, the team developed a projection design for the 360-degree surround surface, embraced the use of the floor as center stage, and developed a five-sided scrim column that descends dramatically into the space for the finale. To accomplish the changes to the A/V systems, a new catwalk and projection gantry system were fabricated and installed into the space.
The show makes use of programmed theatrical lighting and 16 video projectors, of which 10 are used to create a presentation “in the round,” five are used on the five-sided scrim, and one is focused on the floor. The audio system has eight channels and two groups of 10 speakers: one set is used for surround effects; the other in the center of the space faces the audience.
After the conclusion of the performance, theatergoers exit into the upper level exhibit hall, which is arranged, says Miceli, “like the open cityscape of a very active city.” The gallery is composed of three concentric rings: within this comparatively compact “display doughnut,” as Kidd describes it, are found approximately sixty computer interactive exhibits, fifty video replay screens, and ten audio-only exhibits.
The center ring, with its theme “The American Experience,” is organized into zones based on selected phrases excerpted from the Preamble. One area features the American National Tree, composed of 150 cells — photos, graphics, and 32 electronic images — showing the diversity of the nation’s people. Beneath the tree are six large touchscreens, each of which has a directional speaker in the flooring below that is activated when visitors step up to the screen.
Most of these central zones are surmounted by large-screen video projection, and getting the audio “right” required some careful planning on Electrosonic’s part. “The density of the audio elements in the space, the openness of the exhibit design, and the reflectivity of the surface materials meant that great attention had to be paid to directing sound to the desired location,” Kidd remarks. “We were able to achieve the right effect by using custom directional loudspeakers and by augmenting traditional main speakers, mounted behind the video screens, with small floor-mounted speakers on delay channels.”
The outer ring offers the Constitution text on its upper wall; below, the story of the document is conveyed as a timeline through artifacts, text, video, and immersive walk-in “vignettes” with large (28 by 28 by 2-inch) directional speakers embedded in the floor, offset to steer and form cones of sound. Each chapter of the story starts with a large image at a video station, supported by artifacts — “real objects that report the story, make it come to life,” says Miceli. “This is a very active area from an A/V standpoint, and these real objects anchor the space and enrich the experience.” Artifacts include a set of lock picks from the Watergate break-in, Lincoln’s inkwell, FDR’s leg braces, and a signed copy of Irving Berlin’s sheet music for God Bless America.
The innermost ring edging the theater wall explores the Constitution in yet a different manner. It features a number of interactive and “talk-back” stations where visitors can react to a series of images and topics and answer questions. Upon leaving the exhibition ring, visitors pass into the Signers’ Hall where, Miceli says, they “walk into the moment” in which the 42 delegates either signed — or did not sign — the Constitution. Life-size statues of the figures fill the room and provide a unique perspective on the momentous occasion. Visitors are given the opportunity to sign the document and record their decision for posterity.
– Christina Nelson
pei cobb freed & partners
ralph appelbaum associates
donna lawrence productions
jaffe holden acoustics