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News & Notices
In Memoriam:
News From:
Conference & Stage Expo
For the Record
Frederick Russell Johnson:
USITT Fellow

Dr. Joel E. Rubin
USITT Past President
on behalf of the USITT Fellows

I have already written too many obituaries this year. Believe me it is no fun having to do this task especially when it concerns your friends. I have known Russell Johnson since the early 1950s at Yale, later as a colleague in USITT, and lastly as a Principal Consultant at Russ's firm, Artec Consultants Inc, for over a decade until 2005.

No one is quite sure whether Russ ever got a degree from the School of Architecture at Yale. I have read Bachelors, I have read Masters! I doubt whether Russ cared very much whether he received a degree or not. When I first met him, it was during a joint project between the School of Architecture and the School of Drama and we were on the same team. It was only a two-week problem but Russ worried at it and our team spent as much time convincing Russ that he was out-voted on our "solution" as we spent on the problem. Live and learn: he was a very stubborn guy, and that turned out to be very useful in his professional life.

What Russ basically accomplished in that professional life was to combine the fields of architectural acoustics and theatre planning and completely integrate them. As reported by Douglas Martin writing in the New York Times on August 10, 2007, "Russell Johnson…combined architectural training, a love of music and acute intuition to revolutionize the quality of sound in hundreds of the world's concert halls, each of which he regarded as a unique, complex instrument." Norman Lebrecht, Music Critic for the London Evening Standard wrote in Arts Journal on August 9, 2007: "An unobtrusive little man in rumpled suits, he transformed concert halls over the past 35 years, not just the acoustics of the room but the very atmosphere."

Russ was, to use the words of USITT Fellow Patricia McKay "difficult, ornery, cranky, and brilliant." And he was all of those, but also enormously responsive to those who showed an interest in the design of performance spaces.

More than one USITT member has already vouched for the time Russ took on some site or in some meeting to explain every aspect of a proposed design. Russ was never cowed by powerful architects into accepting unworkable room designs. For Russ, this only meant a state of siege until the architect surrendered.

Russ came out of the Bolt Beranek and Newman firm's architectural acoustics division during the late 1950s and 1960s (the great spawning ground for architectural acoustics practitioners in those days). Even as BB&N was attempting to quantify what makes for a great concert hall sound, Russ became more and more convinced that acoustics was essentially an art--- backed up by some basic science. When the firm opened a New York office Russ moved to the city and took up residence as principal consultant and founder of BBN's Theatre Consulting Division. (USITT's own Tom DeGaetani was another resident in this New York office for several years.)

Lincoln Center's Philharmonic Hall (now Avery Fisher Hall) completed in 1962 was a seminal point in Russ's thinking concerning concert hall design. Although he had assisted Bob Newman and Leo Baranek on the design, he recognized that in spite of substantial pre- studies the resultant hall was too big, the designers had been forced into providing too many seats, and the hall had an uneven quality of sound within the orchestral sections, and again between seating locations. Nor, it was soon learned, was it adaptable to provide the best acoustic for the variety in kinds and styles of music performance that were booked.

As Russ started his own practice in 1970 as Russell Johnson Associates, he began the drive towards smaller halls, and in reaction to the lack of flexibility at Philharmonic Hall he provided "variability" in acoustics. Russ pioneered adjustable acoustics systems in performance spaces. Signature design features included large motorized acoustic reflectors or "canopies" over the orchestra, which could be varied in height depending upon the music program. He introduced systems of motorized curtains and cloth banners to provide variable absorption. Another innovation was adding additional acoustic chambers, which could be open to, or closed from the audience chamber; when open these chambers provided additional reverberance to the hall. Many of these elements are now to be found in the ongoing designs of the leading acoustic practitioners.

There is a long litany of Russ Johnson projects, several hundred of them in fact, of which his favorite concert halls were probably the Meyerson Symphony Center in Dallas, the City of Birmingham England Symphony Hall, and the Lucerne, Switzerland Concert and Congress Centre. He was equally fond of the performance spaces at Jazz@Lincoln Center in New York City and the Kravis Center for the Performing Arts in West Palm Beach. The website of Artec Consultants Inc provides an overview of several score of the firm's projects.

He was a constant re-visitor, not only to his own projects, but also to halls designed by his competitors. I suspect Russ knew the pathway to every Conductor's Suite in every concert hall he had visited. Every Maestro enjoyed a place on Russ's mailing list.

Russ was one of the expert speakers at the first USITT Conference in February of 1961 where he was a member of a panel chaired by Harold Burris-Meyer on The Total Environment of the Theatre. Russell's words at that panel as summed up by Editor Henry Wells in USITT Newsletter Vol. 1 No. 1 were that he was "troubled by the large seating capacities of performance halls and their inability to support the many differing programs that were booked into them."

I read in the program for the Institute's Second Annual Conference, held in March of 1962, that Russell had been elected to USITT's Board of Directors. He was the Conference Chair for the Institute's 1964 Conference as USITT Vice-President, and the next year as Vice-President he took on responsibility for the programming of the Institute's first out-of-New York City Conference at Indiana University in Bloomington, Indiana.

In 1996 the Institute provided the USITT Award to Russ for "Lifetime Contribution and Excellence in Architectural Acoustics and Theatre Planning for Performing Arts Spaces," and in the same year he was elected as a Fellow of the Institute.

Among the important contributions Russell made was "Russ Johnson University." This training ground at Artec is legendary for Russ's hiring of young bright starting practitioners, working with them on a project to project basis for a few years and then pushing them out of the nest into their own practices. I would venture a guess that if six acoustic design firms and six theatre planning firms were to be short-listed on any project, that fully 50 percent of them would be Russ Johnson U graduates. Russ used to say "creating competition keeps us on our toes." A list of former Artec-ians would include several score consultant names, most of them still in the business. My personal feeling is that Russ took care to leave behind a very strong design and leadership team at Artec.

One other thing in which Russ was a pioneer was in describing the need and attainment of "silence" in the concert hall design. Russ, quoted in the New York Times obituary from an earlier interview, says, "you have to work very carefully to get the silence right….The acoustician builds his signature on that silence."

Russ did indeed build his "signature" on the design of performance spaces. Of course I'm prejudiced, I think he designed some of the best halls built over the last decades. These facilities are lasting monuments to his vision in uniting all aspects of performance space design and his perseverance in demanding the highest quality.

Russell Johnson, born in Berwick, Pennsylvania on September 14, 1923, passed away in his sleep early Tuesday morning August 7, 2007 just shy of 84 years. He had spent a full day in his office on Monday. A Memorial Service will be held in New York City later this year.

Funeral services were held in Berwick on August 18. Condolences may be sent to Russ's sister, Barbara Johnson Mansfield and family, c/o Artec Consultants Inc, 114 West 26th Street, 12th Floor, New York NY 10001 or by e-mail to

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Frederick Russell (Russ) Johnson

Photo/Chris Lee, courtesy Artec Consultants, Inc.