rady shell at dusk

The Rady Shell at Jacobs Park Enlivens the San Diego Waterfront

Tucker Sadler Architects designed the permanent live performance venue for the San Diego Symphony in a newly enhanced downtown park to support all music genres and public engagement.

A city with an ideal climate like that of San Diego begs for an outdoor venue intended for year-round use. After almost two decades of conversations, the Rady Shell at Jacobs Park opened for the San Diego Symphony’s summer 2021 season. Its striking design and prominent position on the San Diego Bay—the Rady Shell is the first permanent waterfront live performance space on the West Coast—has made the shell and its 55,000 square feet of flexible seating space accommodating audiences of 10,000 a new public gathering place for the Southern California city.

“The entire inspiration is based on the site we’re on,” says Greg Mueller, CEO and design principal of Tucker Sadler Architects in San Diego. “It looks like and was designed around the proportions of a seashell.” London-based Soundforms, who designed the performance shell, collaborated with Mueller and team, which also included project architect Sal Villanueva, to create a highly context-specific structure that’s large enough to accommodate an entire orchestra yet feels intimate enough for individual performers. The Fibonacci sequence also guided the size and shape of the Rady Shell; the resulting series of connected concentric oval rings that taper towards the rear has acoustic benefits in addition to symbolic resonance.

overview of the concert shell on the water

“It’s married to that site, so it feels like it’s always been there,” Mueller adds of the venue that’s situated within the 3.7-acre Jacobs Park. The San Diego Symphony leases the land from the Port of San Diego, which retains oversight of larger Marina Park South on the Embarcadero adjacent to downtown San Diego. Nearby Coronado Island is reachable across the bay. In this transit-rich area adjacent to street cars and a ferry terminal, dedicated parking is minimal.

The white PTFE wrapping of the Rady Shell echoes the material used in places that supports significant infrastructure in the city, such as the adjacent Sails Pavilion at the San Diego Convention Center, and the airport. It also lends an ethereal feel to what’s a formidable work of architecture and engineering. “It’s a material that does well in the San Diego environment given the amount of salt in the air,” Mueller explains, noting its approximate 30-year lifespan.

stage of the bandshell with red chairs in foreground

All tech at Rady Shell is turnkey, Mueller notes, so that any performer can adapt their programming to the existing lighting equipment and sound boards, but it’s designed to be flexible to suit a range of artists’ preferences too. “We’ve made it user friendly,” Mueller says. “We took into account all the different genres of music to accommodate them as needed.”

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The project scope included site improvements to the adjacent park with renovated sport courts and restrooms, and public promenade enhancements that welcome engagement. The Shell Provisions concession pavilions feature food and drink programs from local talent including Urban Kitchen Group and chef Richard Blais. “We try to give a little bit of flavor of San Diego beyond the music portion, so that it’s a full experience,” Mueller says. The translucent lighting system from Kingspan Light + Air allowed the designers to incorporate images of trees that had been removed from the site into the dining pavilions and the box office structures. Given the literal exposure of the location, non-ticket holders can access live performances and still enjoy excellent acoustics. (That said, a monitor on Coronado Island ensures decibel levels stay below a certain range.)

The exterior walls and planters that enclose the ticketed zones also maximize acoustic quality and offer a symbolic gesture. From the stage and the rear of the terraced, sloping audience area, the gentle configuration of the enclosure walls “looks like an embrace, like someone’s arms are outstretched” Mueller observes. Not squaring off the corners at the back avoids dead zones and “keeps the audience in the best sound they can be in.” It’s one of the many ways the Rady Shell at Jacobs Park is a discrete yet remarkably open urban experiential venue.

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