New UMBC arts center is built for show

Concert Hall, Dance Cube coexist with English, archaeology classes

August 30, 2014|By Tim Smith, The Baltimore Sun

The just-completed Performing Arts and Humanities Building atop the campus of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, makes quite a statement from almost every angle — the sun-reflecting, stainless-steel-wrapped Concert Hall; the glass-enclosed Dance Cube jutting from the structure; views of the downtown Baltimore skyline from upper floors.

Phase one of the project was finished two years ago; phase two wrapped up in time for this week's start of UMBC's academic year.

The $160 million, environmentally conscious edifice brings together under one roof (painted white for maximum reflection and energy savings) six departments: music, theater, dance, English, philosophy and ancient studies.

It's the culmination of a longtime ambition. Planning started a decade ago; construction began in 2010.

"This demonstrates the university's commitment to the arts and humanities, which we see as vital to our students' education, no matter what degree or career they are pursuing," says Scott Casper, dean of the College of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences.

Having the English department located in the space reinforces that commitment, as English composition is a required course.

"Every student at UMBC will come through this building," Casper says. "We hope they will have an experience of the arts, too, whether attending a production in the Proscenium Theatre or the gorgeous Dance Cube or the intimate Concert Hall."

Performing arts centers that serve multiple arts disciplines are common; a facility built to serve such disparate genres as 20th-century music (a particular emphasis at UMBC) and archaeology is less so.

Designed by Boston-based William Rawn Associates, the arts and humanities building aims for synergy.

"We wanted to find ways of bringing different departments together," says Clifford Gayley, a principal at William Rawn Associates. "All of them have a presence at the front door, whether with a display area or performance venue. To use a musical term, we were trying to build on the sense of ensemble."

Gayley compares the lower two floors of the building to "interior streets with piazzas at each end, where the major performance spaces are located." This cultural village has "no borders or barriers separating one department from another," he says.

For those studying the arts on campus, and for arts lovers from the community attending diverse presentations there, the new facility is especially welcome. It represents a startling upgrade from the old fine arts building, with its nondescript, well-worn performance spaces and public areas. (Renovation started recently on that building.)

It's not surprising that the arts and humanities building should have striking looks, inside and out, given the track record of Rawn Associates. That firm designed the Music Center at Strathmore, among many other noteworthy performing arts venues around the country. (The local "architect of record" for the UMBC project is Grimm and Parker Architects.)

Multiuse buildings containing multiple performance venues "can become pretty heavy, block-y buildings," Gayley says. "We worked very hard to break down the scale of the building wherever we could."

The stainless steel portion of the exterior provides visual variation; the protruding Dance Cube "breaks up the massing in middle," Gayley says.

The interior of the Concert Hall, with its warm wood tone, seats surrounding the stage and air conditioning vents underneath the seating, is visually reminiscent of Strathmore.

"The use of curves to soften the box of a building is something both spaces share," says Gayley. "The side walls are kind of arced to open up the room and enhance the stage. The aisles are not straight, so that when you look across, you see a sea of seats, rather than a highway separating them."

The hall's first big acoustic test will come in October, when UMBC presents its Livewire Festival of contemporary music. The acoustics were designed by Kirkegaard Associates of Chicago and Denver, a major firm that counts Strathmore's sound among its successes.

But unlike Strathmore's 1,976 seats or Meyerhoff Symphony Hall's 2,443, the university's inviting Concert Hall accommodates 350-375. Seating behind the stage can be used for choristers or audience members.

"As you can imagine, a university's needs for a concert hall are very wide-ranging, and this room can accommodate all those needs and sizes," says Ben Willt, senior consultant at Kirkegaard Associates. "There is enough room volume to achieve the reverberation you need for choral and instrumental works. And there are a lot of adjustable elements that vary the acoustics."

Those adjustments include drapes that can be lowered to reduce reverberation. For electronic music, a sound system with surround capability is being installed.

Although an 80-piece orchestra can fit on the stage, chamber ensembles and solo recitals will be more common in the venue. And when extra intimacy is desired, the Concert Hall can oblige with an about-face.

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