Reaching Higher: Arts as the Vanguard

Tim Carl, AIA


Higher education institutions are seeking new ways to prepare students for the 21st century while maximizing resources--both capital and financial. There is a growing faction investing in the arts to lead the way, and they're seeing exciting returns.

Colleges and universities are not only renovating outdated arts buildings to attract and prepare arts students with state-of-the-art facilities, they are also taking a broader view of what the arts can do, exploring how facilities and programming can impact the entire campus and the surrounding community. We've had the privilege of listening to, thinking with and designing for visionary clients like Macalester College (St. Paul, MN), Los Angeles City College, the University of Minnesota, and California State University Northridge as they imagine the arts as a vehicle for campus development.

Read on to see how these institutions are using the arts to drive academic excellence and innovation, revitalize underutilized facilities and campus spaces, and incorporate new public programming to deepen their relationships with their surrounding communities and improve their bottom lines.


Professional artists are creating and presenting their work in new ways--from incorporating new technologies, to exploring forms that cross disciplinary lines, to presenting their work in nontraditional spaces. Many audiences, too, are looking for more intimate, engaging artistic experiences that break from the traditional.

As a result, colleges and universities are reinventing the way they support their students as they train for sustainable careers in the arts. Campus arts facilities are a significant part of that support structure and the classrooms and performance spaces within them are being reinvented as a result. For example, flexible studio spaces--formerly limited to the "black box" model--are now outfitted with malleable stage and seating arrangements, state-of-the-art technology, and when possible, windows to allow natural light when appropriate. These spaces not only increase a facility's available rehearsal, performance and event spaces but also support the exploration of new forms.

The rehearsal studios at Valley Performing Arts Center at California State University Northridge are designed to host a broad range of disciplines and events. The first sits on the upper level with large windows overlooking the university's historic orange grove. The second is on the ground level and opens up to a courtyard that serves as an additional outdoor rehearsal and performance space. Both have sprung floors, overhead pipe grids, company switches, black-out capabilities, and variable acoustic draperies to accommodate a variety of uses.

These institutions are at the same time dedicated to providing world-class training with more traditional state-of-the-art spaces. They are refurbishing studios and recital and concert halls to update aesthetics, acoustics and technology. The challenge then is to create a space that can be constantly in use, with a flexible infrastructure that supports a diversity of programming, without decreasing the technological superiority of the space.

"Our goal is to stimulate creativity and inspire learning by providing a welcoming, modern and industry-current environment." Daniel Wanner, Music Department Chair

 Los Angeles City College's music building, Clausen Hall, is undergoing a significant renovation as part of a larger effort to elevate the quality and capacity of the school's popular music department. Features include an expanded and updated 190-seat recital hall, new 150-seat lecture hall, electronic music labs, additional practice rooms, new recording studios, improved acoustics in all rooms, and new music library, reading room and listening lab.

The recital hall posed the biggest challenge with limited volume for acoustics. HGA eliminated the existing dropped ceiling and added a penthouse to increase the volume of space. The room was demolished down to the existing structure and rebuilt with new sloped floors for increased seating capacity, new variable acoustic draperies to account for diverse programming, new angled acoustic wall panels, ceiling reflectors and new support spaces such as a green room, recording booth and piano storage.


Many original campus plans lacked a cohesive arts corridor; the arts programs have grown incrementally over the years, often silo-ed in their own building or in makeshift corners of campus. By pulling the arts together, students and faculty benefit from increased campus visibility and synergy between the different disciplines. This cross-fertilization inspires and encourages students to learn about and practice their own art form as well as incorporate ideas from other disciplines.

Arts centers are also being designed to become the new campus Commons, attracting students who might not ordinarily enter an arts building. They include space for all students to gather and study in groups or in solitude, with access to technology, interactive resources, cafés and lounges. These spaces also include physical transparency--with glass interior walls and windows to the campus--so the buildings become not just any gathering space, but one with a creative energy that attracts the entire campus.

"Virtually every student on campus will enter this building in the course of a year for some reason or another--either to see a performance, see an exhibition, talk with friends, or simply to come into the atrium or find one corner of the building to study or read or work on a computer." Brian Rosenberg, Macalester President

The Janet Wallace Fine Arts Center at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota, is a 1960s-era arts complex with music, visual arts, and theatre buildings. Although linked together, the original architecture barricaded each discipline with no opportunities for interaction. The complex was also removed from the flow and energy of the heart of campus. Many students avoided the area, and those who did pass through it had no walkways to follow. HGA's recent renovation transformed the existing buildings into a state-of-the-art visual and performing arts complex anchored by a light-filled, two-story commons to encourage interaction and change the dynamic of that area of campus, making a new social and creative hub.


Broadening the vision for arts facilities opens the door to thoughtful and entrepreneurial programming. We've seen this have an impact on a college's ability to serve students with interdisciplinary academic opportunities, and to animate dormant areas of campus by attracting all students and faculty as well as the public, deepening relationships with an institution's community and generating new revenue.

"The ambitious renovation has promised to transform Northrop into a modern, technology-rich performance space and academic center that would turn the landmark into a hub of daily campus life."--MinnPost, December 2011

The University of Minnesota renovated its historic 1929 Northrop Auditorium, located in the heart of the Twin Cities campus. The first goal was to renovate the auditorium to better serve its range of programming, from student concerts to national and international performers and speakers. Before its renovation, Northrop was famous for its bad acoustics, with some suggesting dynamite was the best solution. A little less dramatic solution was to gut the auditorium, shrinking the footprint from 4,800- to 2,700-seat capacity, and essentially building up a new shell to carefully modulate sound off the architectural shaping of balconies, stone, wood and plaster walls.

The broader goal was to change the role of the auditorium from a "rock in the stream" of campus life - where student traffic only flowed around the building--to a central crossroads. The renovation opened space on four sides of the building, making room for a new small flexible theatre used for lectures, rehearsals and performances as well as classrooms for three interdisciplinary programs, lounges and a café. By housing the three academic programs within a performing arts building, the University revitalizes a formerly underutilized yet iconic building, encourages the intersection of students from all disciplines and facilitates an education based on the cross-fertilization of concepts, ideas, and learning.