Johns Hopkins Gazette: July 21, 1997

N.Y. Architects
Selected For
Arts Center

"Hot" firm created
design that will
blend into the
wooded landscape,
preserve natural charm

Mike Field
Staff Writer

The Homewood campus is a step closer to having a new front door opening onto its Charles Village community. Tod Williams, Billie Tsien and Associates, a New York-based architectural firm cited by Newsweek as a creative force to watch in the coming century, has been selected by the university to design the new student arts center on the Homewood campus.

The 50,000-sq.-ft., $12 million building will sit on and in the wooded knoll at the end of 33rd Street, adjacent to the Baltimore Museum of Art's sculpture garden. Preliminary designs submitted by the firm call for a building of three distinct segments cut into the sloping hill that separates Charles Street from the back of Whitehead Hall. The segments form a triangular courtyard that looks south to the sculpture garden.

Nestled within the embrace of the building segments, a sheltered plaza incorporates terraces and stairways facing the southern sun, while the outside perimeter of the building is blended into the wooded landscape, thus preserving some of the natural, unspoiled charm of the site.

"The site was selected to aid the role of this new building as a link to student activities within the community," says Steve Campbell, interim executive director of the university's Office of Facilities and Real Estate.

The function and location of the arts center combine to make it--at least potentially--a signature building on the Homewood campus. Recognizing this, university administrators took the unusual step of sponsoring a design competition in which selected firms from around the world were invited to participate. "This is the first design competition in my experience," says Campbell, who has been with the university in various capacities for nine and a half years. "We did this as a means of getting the best possible design ideas for a very difficult site."

An initial pool of 18 firms was presented to a committee of deans and administrators who selected three finalists, each of which was invited to submit design proposals for the site based upon specific needs identified by the university. After carefully examining the preliminary designs submitted by the firms in early June, the decision was made to work within the context of the segmented design submitted by Tod Williams, Billie Tsien and Associates.

A multifunction building meant to accommodate everything from dance studios to a computer art lab, the center is envisioned by the architects as "a building to hold artmaking of the 21st century."

While intended to create a welcoming pedestrian thoroughfare into the Homewood campus, the site must also house offices, meeting places, rehearsal spaces and studios. In that respect, the center's greatest challenge is to accommodate all the varied demands simultaneously, creating an environment that is open to novelty and innovation, yet conducive to the discipline and sense of seriousness art-making requires. The trick was not to let the building stand in the way of the events meant to occur within it.

"One of the things that happened in the modern architecture movement is that buildings became objects," says architect Billie Tsien, who with husband Tod Williams has made their medium-sized firm one of the most talked-about design studios in the nation. "We are from that modern tradition--I like to say we're modernist architects--but we try not to let the buildings we create stand as objects. We want the student arts center to be an extension of the hill and blend into the site rather than overpower it."

The proposed building rises from the hill organically, with lower levels constructed of brick with slate sills and coping meant to reflect the prevailing architectural language of the Homewood campus. The two upper levels speak a more modernist vocabulary in glass and steel. Two parts of the building--one facing Charles Street and the other on the service road that surrounds Whitehead Hall--are built over broad pedestrian pass-throughs so students hurrying to class and visitors coming in from Charles Street can enter the campus without needing to go inside the building.

The upper levels of the buildings are to be a mixture of clear, textured, translucent and opaque glass panels so that the arts center will become not just a gateway, but a beacon to the Homewood campus. "I would love it if this building could become a container of life and light," Tsien says. "It's situated in a dark part of the campus--at least a part that is dark at night-- and part of our use of the landscape is to create a lantern filled with light and life at night. We envision the students there at all hours in an atmosphere that is alive with movement and energy."

Although this is their first student arts center (and their first project in Maryland) Tod Williams, Billie Tsien and Associates may be ideally suited for the Hopkins building. The firm gained national prominence for its design of the Neurosciences Institute, a campuslike building built for Nobel Prize-winning researcher Gerald Edelman within the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, Calif. What particularly drew attention to the Neurosciences Institute is the way that building encourages scientists and researchers in different disciplines to interact and share their ideas.

Cross-pollination and serendipitous collaboration are no less important in the arts, says Tsien, who believes the proposed building design will encourage a free flow of creative energy. Much of what is to take place within the center is especially interesting to both Tsien and her husband.

"A student arts center is close to our kinds of interests," Tsien says. "We taught and continue to teach at schools like the University of Texas, Yale and the University of Pennsylvania; we have designed costumes and sets for the Elise Monte Dance Company of New York, and we are both involved in the arts." Designing the center was a chance to put into practice some of their insights into the collaborative nature of the arts.

"The new student arts center is part of a nationwide trend of offering more amenities to students on campus," says Campbell of the university's decision to build its first major non-academic building in recent memory. "Buildings like arts centers, improved athletic facilities and student unions are expected by prospective students. At Hopkins, we have traditionally been less well endowed with these buildings than our peer institutions, and to some extent, this is an effort to backfill a perceived void."

"Our student body has grown tremendously in the past decade," says Homewood Student Affairs Dean Larry Benedict, "and our current buildings are stretched to the limit. In the last five years we've gone from 70 to 170 student groups active on campus. Levering Hall [the Homewood campus student union] is booked all day, every day. The trustees understand the need for this building and are very supportive of our efforts."

According to Benedict, 13 different independent reports, including the university's most recent reaccreditation review, have pointed out the need for additional facilities of this kind. "We conducted a number of focus groups with the students, and most of the things they felt were lacking on campus were arts-related, such as performance spaces and rehearsal rooms," he said. "I think the whole concept the architects have come up with is just terrific. It's a very sensitive and creative response to our needs."

Fund raising for the new center continues. Currently, $9 million has been raised or pledged, and current projections call for a groundbreaking in the fall of 1998. The building itself should be completed within two years of the start date, making it likely the proposed center of "artmaking of the 21st century" will be around to welcome the first incoming class of the new millennium.

The student arts center is part of more than $160 million in construction and renovation now under way throughout the Hopkins system.

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