Lights Down, Curtains Up!
by Mary Shipp Bartlett
On a campus renowned for both its natural and created beauty, Scripps College has a new center for music and performance, where the intellectual merges with the sensory to produce teaching and learning at the highest level.
Internationally acclaimed musicians Rachel and Hao Huang perform at the dedication of the Performing Arts Center on October 4, 2003, assisted by College accompanist Paul Bishop.
By any standard, the Performing Arts Center, which opened this fall, is a stunning achievement. It provides a new home for the Music Department and finally unifies all of its educational and performance spaces into one location. It provides state-ofthe- art acoustics and theatrical systems for both instruction and performance. It has taken an underutilized 40-year-old building, and through remodeling and new construction, has created a beautiful new addition to the Scripps campus, at a cost approximately 40% lower than building new.
What is surprising about the Performing Arts Center is how the BOORA Architects, Inc., working with general contractor Tovey/Shultz, the College’s design committee, and the music faculty, could take a landmark building of the 1960s and transform it into a beautiful place for the arts that complements the elegant and historic beauty of the main Scripps campus.
“When we found Garrison Theater four years ago,” comments Stan Boles, head architect on the project, “its blank brick walls and ’60s modernism didn’t match the architectural character of Scripps’ intimately scaled and beautifully landscaped campus. We knew the first challenge would be in the area of design.”
Equally challenging was to be the change in overall functionality. Garrison was originally designed as a theater and scene shop; the new complex—of which Garrison would remain the anchor—would need to provide adequate performance and rehearsal space, accommodate acoustically demanding musical performance, enhance instruction, and offer ample practice space to meet the nearly 24-hour-a-day demand from student musicians.
Professor of Music Hao Huang underscores the importance of that last daunting task: “We needed a far more supportive environment for students than the former site. The new complex offers twice as many practice rooms for musicians. That’s a vast improvement and one that will undoubtedly affect not only the quantity but the quality of programs we can pursue in future.”
Along with the renovation of Garrison, essential to the overall project was the addition of two new wings, with space for faculty studios, the Nancy Hart Glanville Music Library, and the MaryLou and George Boone Recital Hall.”These additions help reduce the scale of Garrison to conform more closely to the almost residential scale of the main Scripps campus,” says architect Boles.
But how to design the new complex to both complement and be recognizable as part of the Scripps campus?
Facing the challenge of converting the rectangular, red brick theater and its additions into something more Scrippsian, Michael Deane Lamkin, dean of faculty and chair of the Performing Arts Center Design Committee, explains the vital role the music faculty played in the design process. “Early on, we had a discussion about what they would consider to be most essential architectural features that should be incorporated into the new buildings. Not surprising, their wish list included a number of elements that are important to and distinctly define the main campus, such as landscaped courtyards and glass walls that let in light and create a sense of welcome.”
“As a team,” adds Boles,”we did the ultimate ‘extreme makeover’ on Garrison—not just with regard to the aesthetics, such as cutting new windows in brick walls, but also with regard to functionality, adding elevators, more than doubling the number of plumbing fixtures (especially in the women’s room), installing all new mechanical, electrical, and audio-visual systems, removing hazardous materials, and upgrading all to meet seismic,American Disabilities Act, and State of California energy codes.”
The Curtain Rises
The College first gathered as a community in renovated Garrison Theater for opening Convocation on August 28.The Performing Arts Center was officially dedicated on October 4, with both dance and music performances in Garrison. And, finally, the inaugural concerts, with the full 93-member Claremont Concert Orchestra and 97-member Concert Choir, from Claremont McKenna, Harvey Mudd, Pitzer, and Scripps Colleges, and the Claremont community, were held October 23 through October 26.
Lamkin describes how it felt, during inaugural weekend, to conduct the choir and orchestra in the new Garrison: “It is an extraordinary experience to be in our own hall on our own campus, presenting this music in a stunningly gorgeous building.”
Jane O’Donnell, the Bessie and Cecil Frankel Professor of Music and chair of the Music Department, echoes these sentiments: “I am thrilled that, at last, we have a home of our own for choir and orchestra performances.”
During the test run presented by the initial concerts, the acoustics were declared wonderful—and decidedly different from previous musical experiences in the old Garrison. Each note sung was clear, each section of the orchestra distinctive. To the layperson sitting in the third row from the stage or the last row of the theater, receiving this kind of audible equity is ideal.To the musician, Lamkin explains, quality acoustics are crucial to both individual and concert performance.
“With poor, or ‘dead’ acoustics, musicians have to push, or strain, to create the right sound,” he says. “Superior acoustics allow them to hear the other musicians and how their own part fits in with the overall production. It allows them to focus on the sensitive features of the music. It makes it possible for performers to take the time and care to explore the widest range of musical expression. Garrison now offers that level of acoustical excellence.”
Achieving the perfect acoustical environment was not easy, admits Dave Conant, of McKay Conant Brook, Inc, and head acoustician on the Performing Arts Center project. The process of bringing Garrison Theater up to a formidable standard was lengthy. “An early part of the remodel of Garrison involved critical listening and benchmark testing of the theater’s existing acoustics. In any concert performance, proper acoustics should diffuse, bloom, and direct the ‘life’ of the music toward the audience.” In other words, the sound should surround every listener, offering a subtle, yet almost tangible, experience.
“In reviewing Garrison’s existing system, it quickly became apparent that the preponderance of sound was directed to the rear wall surfaces, thereby minimizing the potential reverberation and the audience’s sense of envelopment,” says Conant.
In addition, Conant found that the theater’s air conditioning system was so noisy that it had to be turned off during performances.
Less is More
With initial work on the stage underway—including a new shell, extended forestage, and proscenium “cheek walls” to better direct stage sound to both audience and performers— the acousticians experimented with a scale model prepared by the architects. They tested a variety of concepts with laser light substituting for “sound rays” reflecting off mirrored, prospective new wall and ceiling surfaces. They extended the room’s original reverberation time by about 0.7 second by removing both the absorptive finishes and the ceiling, while applying performing arts center dense plaster to the roof underside. A small bit of new absorptive material was applied low at the rear and along one side of the entry passageways for echo control.
Conant explains how this works: “The arrays of sidewall panels increase diffusion while redirecting lateral sound that had previously been simply lost to the old rear walls. As panels of this sort are prone to absorbing bass energy, several variations were built and acoustically tested in mockup assemblies to optimize their performance. The highly articulated and tilted rear wall provides early reflections to the rear audience, while providing diffusion and no harm to any audio reinforcement requirements of the acoustics.”
As a cost-saving measure, Garrison’s new air-conditioning equipment was placed within the original mechanical rooms immediately adjacent to the theater. As a result, the sound isolation of mechanical rooms was greatly improved to reduce noise transmission into the theater, the fans were vibrationisolated to eliminate structure-borne noise, and the supply and return duct layouts were re-engineered to provide near-silent air delivery. Post-installation measurements, according to Conant, indicate that acousticians have reduced extraneous noise in Garrison Theater by half.
A Different Kind of “Green” house
The Performing Arts Center notably contains many environmentally conscious and sustainable design features. In Garrison, the existing theater seats were used and reupholstered in a rich red fabric; the Jim Cok wood exterior benches and Sam Maloof lobby benches were refurbished; the Millard Sheets mosaic mural on Garrison Theater’s façade was professionally restored, as were the Ames tapestries in the lobby; fabric-covered acoustical panels were made from recycled glass and plastic bottles; and carpet manufactured from solar and wind-generated renewable energy sources was selected. In addition, almost all rooms throughout the center were given day lighting through insulated, low-E glazing and skylights.
So, does the acoustically and visually improved Garrison now make it the only—or preferred—viable venue for musical performance at Scripps?
“Definitely not,” says Lamkin. “First of all, we have the equally impressive brand-new MaryLou and George Boone Recital Hall, which offers an entirely different performance space but with all the acoustical bells and whistles that Garrison has, just on a smaller scale.”
Professor O’Donnell chimes in:”My voice students, who currently use Boone Hall as both practice and performance space, are amazed at the ease with which their voices can fill the room.”
“And Balch, of course,” reminds Lamkin, “is still the venue of choice for chamber music and soloists to perform because of its more intimate size. It still boasts an acoustical environment that is quite good.”
So while the Joint Music Program’s Concert Orchestra and Concert Choir will now call Garrison and the Scripps Performing Arts Center their home, they will also continue to schedule some of their concerts in Little Bridges—for a “different experience,” explains Lamkin.
“And,” Lamkin cheerfully adds, “Pomona College is starting to book some of their performances at Garrison for the same reason.”
As the Performing Arts Center becomes increasingly important to Scripps and the Claremont Community—with top performances, prominent speakers, and educational offerings—the College hopes to expand and enhance the complex by adding dedicated facilities for the dance program, which currently is housed in the Richardson Dance Studio.
Lamkin concludes: “To all who made this happen, we owe a debt of gratitude and thanks, for making this place come alive, and become a living, breathing organism, supporting students and faculty as they pursue their intellectual curiosities, their professional goals, and their distant but achievable dreams.”