"The highest purpose of a city or a civilization," the late developer James Rouse said shortly after Columbia opened nearly 30 years ago, "is to nourish the growth of its people."
And one of the greatest contributions a builder can make toward that end, Rouse contended, is "to bring art to the marketplace" -- by providing spaces where artists of all kinds can perform or exhibit their work.
This quest to bring the fine and performing arts into the mainstream of the community was one of the most enduring themes of Rouse's long career as a banker, developer and urban visionary. Nowhere has it been realized more resourcefully than in the Jim Rouse Theatre for the Performing Arts, a multipurpose space that will be dedicated Saturday in Columbia.
Built as part of the new Wilde Lake High School, the 750-seat theater is one of the first buildings to bear the name of Columbia's founder, who died last April at 81.
Although Rouse was not directly involved in its development (besides leaving $100,000 for it in his will), it's entirely consistent with his approach to community-building in that it is at once pragmatic and prestigious, accessible yet distinguished.
Most importantly, because it can serve several purposes at once, it provides a national model for linking "art" and "community" in a way that can work not only in affluent Howard County but elsewhere.
Like the best of Rouse's developments, it demonstrates what can be -- even in a world where the arts always seem to be facing the budget ax.
"In his earliest planning for Columbia, Jim talked to arts experts" to find ways to enrich the community by incorporating spaces for artists, says his widow, Patricia Rouse. He also "pioneered the idea of linking things" in buildings with multiple uses, she says.
As a result, the theater is very much an outgrowth of Rouse's vision for Columbia. "To see the arts attached to the schools in this way," she says, "is just great."
Designed by Cochran Stephenson & Donkervoet of Baltimore, with the Roger Morgan Studio of New York as theater consultant, the Rouse Theatre represents a new twist on the old "percent for the arts" formula in which a large (and often hideous) piece of sculpture is set down by the front door of the local school or public library.
Instead of using public funds to pay for "plop art" to adorn a public building, the Howard County Arts Council and Howard County Public School System invested funds to upgrade the spaces inside, thereby increasing the scope of activities it could accommodate.
The result is a creative blend of arts and education: a $20.2 million school with a technologically sophisticated arts wing that can enhance the academic program during the school day yet operate independently at other times.
Its ability to perform double duty -- for the school system and the community at large -- is the architects' greatest achievement. For an additional investment of about $1.2 million, they elevated the standard high school assembly hall to the level of a regional performing arts center, suitable for a wide range of amateur and professional productions. Had it been a freestanding facility, it could have cost at least $10 million.
"This is not the typical high school auditorium," said Walter Kunz Jr., head of the design team for CS&D. "It's a hybrid between an upgraded high school auditorium and a community theater."
For a public school, "you're seeing a first" in the region, agreed Mary Toth, director of the arts council. "It shows what you can do for a little more money You'd have to go to the college level" to find anything comparable.
Mall of education
Performing arts centers can be knitted into communities in many ways. The Lyric Opera House and Meyerhoff Symphony Hall in Baltimore are freestanding halls that anchor the Mount Royal Cultural Center. The Morris A. Mechanic Theatre was built to bring people downtown after dark. The Peggy & Yale Gordon Center for the Performing Arts is an annex of the Jewish Community Center in Owings Mills.
In Columbia, the decision to build the Rouse theater as part of a high school influenced the design of the entire project. Located at 5460 Trumpeter Road in the Village of Wilde Lake, the three-story school is unusual in that it was laid out like a shopping mall, with large student gathering spaces serving as anchors the way department stores do for retail centers, and a skylighted "main street," or internal corridor, to connect them. From the main entrance, a visitor can read signs that correspond to the three anchors: STUDENT DINING, GYMNASIUM and THEATRE.
Besides the theater itself, the arts wing has a separate lobby, a smaller "black box" or experimental theater with its own control room, a scenery shop with high ceilings and a 2,000-square-foot dance studio that can double as dressing and waiting areas when large groups are performing. Visual arts classrooms are nearby.