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  • February 24, 2022

Robert William Wolff – In Memoriam
(1938 – 2022)

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Bob Wolff memorial

We are sad to announce Robert W. Wolff passed away on January 30, 2022.

Bob came to Acentech in 2009, after a long career in theatre and design of performance facilities. For thirteen years, he shared with us his knowledge, experience, and passion for theatre and music, and for the ways that buildings can support their creation and performance. He emphasized a focus on the needs of artists, and insisted that the artists are always the real clients of any performing arts building project, whoever might be paying for the building and its design. He believed that designers – including acousticians, theatre consultants, and architects – must involve themselves in the conception and planning of these facilities in order that they be successful. These disciplines are so closely related, he argued, that one could only do any of them well by understanding all of them, as well as the artistic performances that they support. He spoke his views loudly and persuasively, and substantiated them with detailed stories of the many great facilities to which he had contributed. These stories were most often about the people involved, their varied backgrounds and interested, and how they came together to make great buildings for performing artists.

At Acentech, Bob’s role was mentor and advisor. He rarely worked directly for our clients, but often provided coaching and guidance behind the scenes, which has proved invaluable to many of us. His guidance was focused in equal parts on design and on attitude and group collaboration: put the artists’ needs first, he said, and there is always a way to bring the design to meet them. He delivered this message with firmness and also with humility, never over-playing his own role and always supporting others.

Bob provided leadership to the design, construction and equipping of spaces for arts performance since 1963. He participated in the design of many theatres, concert and recital halls, concert theatres, and rehearsal rooms. His work brought him familiarity with design and construction approaches on three continents. In concert theatres, Bob introduced efficient, acoustically effective systems for changing concert theatres from symphonic to operatic and ballet staging formats, with an emphasis on operational ease and efficiency. He developed successful, economical planning approaches and integration of theatrical, mechanical and electrical systems into performance facilities, always with the aim of facilitating great performances of many kinds. Among his many contributions was a focus on the importance of very low noise (“no noise,” as he famously put it) in performance spaces, and he inspired several years of Studio A research and experimentation on the subject.

His early training and experience as a musician, in addition to his theatre experience, prepared him to assist clients on a wide variety of performing arts projects. He was as familiar with the accommodation of swing, jazz, bluegrass, blues, show, rock and folk music as he was with recital music, chamber music, classical symphony and choral music.

Bob’s work in theatre and music began in childhood and continued throughout his life, touching nearly every aspect of performing arts: musician, sound and lighting operator, design of sets and lighting for theatre shows, theatre and acoustics planning and design for buildings. He often recounted tales of his time at BBN’s offices on Moulton Street in 1966 or thereabouts, after graduating from a theater technology program at Carnegie Tech (now Carnegie Mellon University) in 1960, and earning his M.A. in Theatre Arts from the Pennsylvania State University in 1963.

Acentech’s Carl Rosenberg met Bob in 2008 at the Acoustical Society of America’s session honoring the career of Russell Johnson, Bob’s longtime professional partner at Russell Johnson Associates and Artec, where they together brought to life dozens of world-class concert halls, concert theaters, playhouses, and other performing arts facilities. At that time, he had recently settled in Milton, Massachusetts, and soon joined us at Acentech, where he became a key figure within Studio A, our practice in performing arts consulting.

Bob thought deeply about what it means to be a consultant, how to be a good one, and how to contribute to great buildings for musicians, actors, and other performers. He cared very deeply for all of his colleagues at Acentech, and wanted earnestly for each of us to be the best consultants we could be. He played a dozen instruments. He painted beautiful watercolors and threw some great ceramics. Bob was also a devoted baseball fan (Red Sox in his later years), who preferred to listen to the games on radio – very old school and very Bob.

We will miss him very much.