Cuthbert Shines (Too) Brightly

Now that morning frost on the windows is becoming the rule and the Thomas Egan Warming Centers have been inaugurated for another season, let’s talk about fixing one of Eugene’s best summertime features, the Cuthbert Amphitheater. We all love the concerts, the lawn, the people-watching. I swear the music sounds even better after it’s wafted through the trees to reach people who didn’t buy tickets. The shell itself gleams gloriously, adding visual intrigue to park walks year round.

The Cuthbert works poorly only for a small but important group of people: the performers. This might not have occurred to you, unless you saw a singer cupping her hand over her eyebrows or donning a baseball cap after intermission.

The stage points nearly due west, which means the summer sun sets exactly in the eyes of anyone trying to look from that spot to connect with the audience. Imagine a celestial spotlight coming from the back row of a theater, shining straight into your eyes. The Cuthbert canopy is too high to shade performers. Only when the sun drops below the trees, as late as 8 pm in midsummer, is the stage shaded.

More than one performer over the years has declined to return to the Cuthbert because of this particular detail.

“You’ve identified a problem that has been well documented,” responded Isaac Marquez, public art manager for the city of Eugene. “Let me just say this. We want to be known as a welcoming community, and that should include the performers who come here.”

We can stick to our lumberingly slow solution and wait for the trees to grow tall enough, but that will take decades. We can remain ignorant of the problem altogether, but that bliss now will be reserved for non-readers of this column. Or we can get inventive and make a good thing better. (If you dislike math, you have my permission to skip now to the final three paragraphs.)

I asked Alexandra Rempel to help me better understand the problem. As a researcher and instructor at the University of Oregon’s Environmental Studies Program and building scientist specializing in passive solar solutions, she pays closer attention to the sun than most of us.

She met me on site, with a bag full of tools and gizmos to evaluate the situation. Her inclinometer and laser measured positions and heights of surrounding trees. She used Google Earth to determine the precise location of the amphitheater, and then a solar path map showed whether the stage is in sun or shade at any hour of the year. Taken together, she gave me some preliminary calculations. More importantly, she showed me how the exact dimensions of any shading solution could easily be calculated.

We start with certain assumptions. We’re only concerned with early evening sun trajectories between May and September. We want to provide sun shading for performers standing near front and center of the stage. We want a minimal design that enhances the Cuthbert experience for everyone, and diminishes it for no one.

Simple geometry shows that the closer we get to the performers’ eyes, the smaller the shaded area will need to be. Rempel calculated for me that a banner 50 feet in the air, 20 feet tall and 200 feet wide behind the grass slope will have roughly the same effect as a baseball cap’s brim on the performer’s head. If a banner could be erected halfway between (in front of the grass), it could be half the size and not obstruct anyone’s view. Any banner could be made much smaller if it was adjusted each week, tracking the sun’s setting position.

So we know the answer is out there, leaving to us only the fun part — how to fashion the solution so it’s beautiful and fitting for the environment and the community.

I asked Marquez about process. “Usually a solution starts with [finding the] money. Then comes planning and feasibility. Only then do we take it to the community.”

That’s slightly less than an endorsement, but I’m confident we can fix this little problem in less time than it’ll take those trees to the west to triple in height.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs.