Five Criteria for the Arts

When the University of Chicago planned to build a home for the fine and performing arts, the key goals were that this home support the teaching and practice of each resident art form — theatre, dance, music, visual art, and film — in a manner keeping with the high level of talent and dedication the students and faculty bring to those endeavors. It was also fundamental to the philosophy of the University and the mission of the building that this new home foster interdisciplinary collaboration. The various art forms needed to be able to coexist and interact in ways that were unexpected and inspirational, so that each artist benefited from working alongside and accommodating their neighbors.

These requirements present a wonderful challenge for theatre planners. How can each performance and support space in an arts building be properly furnished and equipped to support the stated goals of the university while integrating well with the architecture? At the Logan Center, this challenge was met through the application of five criteria fundamental for the success of any performance space.

Functionality
Room design and the systems for production in the room have to provide as much utility as possible. For the 474-seat Performance Hall in the Logan Center, this meant balancing the demands of the performance types that require the largest stages, such as music and dance, with more common uses by soloists and chamber musicians. For example, the large stage required for dance is not intimate and supportive enough for a string quartet.


To maximize room functionality, the rear wall of the stage was made of rolling towers that can be arranged around smaller ensembles to create the acoustic and visual environment they need.

Flexibility

Performance spaces can be expensive, and they are utilized less often than rehearsal spaces, scene shops, and administrative space. Finding ways to make performance spaces operate for multiple functions brings a great deal of value. The Logan Center’s Performance Hall is designed with this flexibility built in.

The stage is designed to support acoustic music performance.
 
The design team surrounded the performance space with acoustically reflective walls and ceiling so that the stage and seating area are one contiguous space. Dance also takes place in the Performance Hall, and dance needs a performance area where things like lighting and dancers waiting to make an entrance can be hidden from view. Typically, a large footprint allows for a true stage house and a portable orchestra enclosure. On a site with a smaller footprint, other methods of creating this flexibility needed to be developed. The solution for the Logan Center involves rotating wall panels which, when rotated, open to reveal small stage wings behind the acoustic walls. These provide sufficient space for dancers to safely run out of audience view as well as for the mounting of side lighting that properly models dancers in space.

Another key to making any performance space flexible is providing sufficient storage. It’s impossible to use the same stage for orchestra and dance if there is nowhere to store musicians’ risers or music stands. In the Logan Center, every available square foot not used for something vital is used for storage.

Maintainability
Any design solution is only as good as an owner’s ability to maintain it. This is true of curtain walls, classroom floors, and performance spaces.

Lighting is particularly maintenance-intensive. Even the introduction of solid-state lighting like LEDs does not eliminate the need to access fixtures for maintenance and repair. In performance spaces, which are often tall and frequently have uneven floor surfaces like stepped risers, the best and safest method of ensuring that systems can be maintained is to develop a means of accessing the upper area of the room. In the Logan Center’s three spaces dedicated to live performance, that access is achieved with catwalks. These catwalks are designed to safely allow operators to access lighting for the audience, lighting and motors used for production, and for variable acoustic devices. The goal is to create a space that has a zero ladder-use requirement, so that all equipment at height can be reached from a catwalk or positioned above a flat floor to allow access from a lift. In some circumstances, access to the catwalks might require traversing a short fixed ladder, but that should be the exception.

Ease of Use
Along with maintaining systems, making those systems easy to operate is critical. If making a room flexible requires too much effort or is too complex, then the room will likely be left in one configuration only. Nowhere is this more apparent than with variable acoustic systems. The Logan Center’s Performance Hall needed to be very acoustically lively for music performance, less lively for spoken word, and nearly dead for film performance. This is achieved in an easy-to-operate manner by using roll-down banners and a control system. Deployed in groups of one, two, and three banners, this is actuated with 36 different motors. In order to operate that many motors simply and effectively, a control system that allows virtual visualization of the banners is used. An operator, working in a virtual model of the room, clicks on the banners to be moved and then presses a button. After determining certain presets that are desired, the operator can then simply recall those presets. If it were necessary to operate each motor individually or to operate the banners manually, this system would never be used properly. As it is, one trained operator can completely change the acoustic environment of the room and go from an acoustic environment for film to an environment for chorus in seconds.

Individuality

Educational institutions are not all the same. They each have their own mission, goals, and personality. The buildings they create reflect this variety. The University of Chicago is a research institution at its heart. Research guides the way the sciences and the arts are studied. This meant planning performance spaces to support the current methods of work but also to plan for methods of work and types of art that are not yet conceived. To do that, very robust infrastructure was planned for the Logan Center, specifically:
  • Very strong walls, floors, and ceilings;
  • 
electrical supplies that are ample and easy to access; and
  • equipment systems with headroom for growth as new technologies become available.

The performance spaces, classrooms, art studios, and workshops are all seen as laboratories and are provided with the infrastructure required to use them that way.

Despite the old saw that, “a theatre that is good for everything isn’t good for anything,” the technologies exist to allow performance spaces to be equipped and furnished to support a wide range of functions and art forms. Planning and designing with the five criteria above will allow the arts at the University of Chicago to live and thrive together. 

Joshua Grossman, ASTC
, is a principal at Schuler Shook Theatre Planners and was the theatre project manager for the Logan Center. He can be reached at jgrossman@schulershook.com.

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