Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Audience Engineering

In the mid-19th century, the popularity of tours by European virtuoso performers (Fanny Elssler, Jenny Lind, Leopold de Meyer, Ole Bull, etc.) had promoters and city leaders scrambling to find venues large enough to accommodate the increasingly large audiences. Older cities like Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and New Orleans typically had standing theaters or churches that could hold large numbers of people, but many towns and smaller cities had to improvise. Jenny Lind, to the embarrassment of genteel Boston observers, for example, performed in the Fitchburg, Massachusetts, railway station.

Mass meetings of all kinds soon became in demand. Audiences marvelled at the emotions created by huge crowds, especially in urban communities, where residents could suspend their normal isolation and anonymity and see themselves literally gathered, as a single entity. Boston’s National Peace Jubilee, for instance, developed by band leader Patrick Gilmore in 1869, to celebrate the end of the Civil War, was the largest single concert gathering in the United States, including an orchestra of 1,000 (along with a total of 11,000 singers) and an audience of 50,000, all in a temporary coliseum, constructed entirely out of wood.

Interior of the Coliseum of the 1869 National Peace Jubilee

In 1872, Gilmore did it again in the World Peace Jubilee. Architect William G. Preston redesigned the since demolished 1869 coliseum on an even bigger scale, with a seating capacity of 100,000 (and a 2,000-pice orchestra and a chorus of 20,000). 

At events like this, the thunder of applause was as interesting as any performer; indeed, the physicality of the moment created excitement out of risk as much as pleasure. Flyers for the 1869 Jubilee advertised "AN IMMENSE COLISEUM, The largest structure in America, capable of accommodating FIFTY THOUSAND PERSONS, has been erected especially for this occasion." And, as one writer said about the Peace Jubilee in 1872: “Not the least moral feature of the Festival is the applause,--so overwhelming in its demonstration that timid souls have said their prayers and trusted blindly in the stability of wooden rafters.”

Gilmore tried to downplay this risky excitement in his own accounts of the festivals, but clearly it was part of the appeal: “The builders, contractors, architects, and building committee were all gentlemen of great experience, and fully appreciated the responsibility of their task. They knew that the safety and security of Fifty Thousand lives were in their hands, and they took every precaution to guard against accident by making the structure strong and solid enough to bear ten times the weight and pressure to which it would ever be subjected…From morning till night, for weeks and months, the Building Committee, one or all, were almost constantly on the ground, watching every inch of progress made. Fully satisfied that everything possible was being done which the knowledge and experience of the builders and their own foresight could suggest to make the structure safe beyond a doubt, they turned a deaf ear to the malicious rumors that would have swept away all confidence…” (From Patrick Gilmore, History of the National Peach Jubilee and Great Musical Festival, 1871: 277).

Big audiences didn’t disappear—you start to see the impact of mass meetings and concerts, especially, in sports, where stadium construction increases to accommodate audiences for baseball and football. As an article from a gymnasium construction company states, "It is announced in the newspaper column that the Yale football management is to make determined effort to accommodate all the spectators who may wish to attend the Yale-Harvard football game this fall, a condition of affairs which has not existed in previous years. Some 4,000 additional seats are to be erected, giving the gridiron stands a seating capacity of about 31,000. The new stands will be so erected as to close the corners and fill in the sides. Comparison with the Harvard stadium, used for the first time last year, still shows a greater capacity at Cambridge. The Harvard stadium proper seats about 25,000 persons, but by means of additional stands 35,000 can be accommodated. (American Gymnasia and Athletic Record, Vol 1, September 1904-August 1905. Boston: American Gymnasia Company: 11)

Temporary “stands” were one thing; it became clear by the 1890s that the lasting appeal of sports would require more scientific examination of how create solid, safe, and enduring audience structures. I’m only beginning the exploration of this particular science, but here’s a glimpse, from a paper on “live loads”—another term for audience!--delivered at the meeting of the American Society of Civil Engineers in 1904:

"It is freely admitted the writer’s results give figures greatly in excess of those given by the accepted authorities (outside of some municipal building laws), both in the United States and in Europe, but the experiment is one very easily tried by anyone who may feel unconvinced. Doubtless, mixed crowds of men and women, such as football spectators, may weigh less per square foot, with an equal degree of personal discomfort, than the body of students in the writer’s experiments. It should be remembered that a closely packed crowd is not likely to be in a mood to take calmly any undue deflection or appearance of weakness in the floor, and the result of such seeming insecurity is not pleasant to contemplate. In the writer’s opinion, such floors as those of passageways, corridors, standing-room in theaters, assembly rooms without fixed seats, ballrooms, etc., should be calculated for a weight closely approaching 150 lb. per sq. ft., or, in some cases even more, without exceeding the unit stresses of Mr. Schneider’s Paragraph 17. Possibly, a large standing assemblage, such as is common at political meetings, likely to applaud by stamping; or, a throng of dances; or a body of drilling soldier, might call for an additional impact provision."(C. C. Schneider, “The Structural Design of Buildings.” Transactions of the American Society of Civil Engineers, Paper No. 997: 443-444)

An image from C. C. Schneider's 1904 paper on "live loads."

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