The Johns Hopkins Gazette: October 5, 1998
Oct. 5, 1998
VOL. 28, NO. 6


Arts Center To Become A Reality

By Steve Libowitz
Johns Hopkins Gazette Online Edition

The university will break ground for its new student arts center on the Homewood campus at 4:30 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 10, on a site just southeast of the Milton S. Eisenhower Library.

The event was planned to coincide with several major university events, including the regularly scheduled board of trustees meeting, the annual Alumni Council meeting and the annual associates dinner, which celebrates the many friends who have contributed to the Johns Hopkins Initiative campaign.

The student arts center's western wing backs up to Whitehead Hall, top left, and the Ross Jones wing, bottom, parallels Charles Street. The theater wing is nestled between the two longer structures.

The 50,000-square-foot, $17 million student center is scheduled to open in the fall of 2000 as a multifunctional facility offering rehearsal, meeting, studio and gathering space for student groups. It also will house performance space and a theater for events open to both students and the community.

"For a long time, Hopkins has sorely lacked the facilities to adequately support a strong and vibrant student life," says Larry Benedict, dean of Homewood student affairs. "At the same time, our competitors either have such facilities or are in the planning stages for them. This new student arts center along with a planned new recreation center and interfaith and community service center are facilities our students need and deserve, and the entire community will benefit from having them on our campus.

"Our student body has grown tremendously in the past decade," he says, "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 is booked all day, every day. The trustees understand the need for this [new] building and have been very supportive of our efforts."

The student arts center is designed as three distinct wings that will form an open triangle on and in the wooded knoll at the end of 33rd Street and bordered on the west by Whitehead Hall; on the east by Charles Street; to the north by the Merrick Barn, home of Theatre Hopkins; and to the south by the Baltimore Museum of Art's Levi Sculpture Garden. Nestled within the center's wings, a sheltered plaza will incorporate terraces and stairways facing the southern sun; the outside face of the building will blend into the wooded landscape.

"The site was selected because it is most convenient to students living on campus as well as [to] the community, and it provides what we think will be a very welcoming entranceway to the campus for our neighbors," says Steve Campbell, interim executive director of the Office of Facilities Management.

Campbell and other members of the university community have worked with the architects to create the design for the much-needed center. Campbell also has consulted with members of the Charles Village neighborhood and the Baltimore City Planning Commission, incorporating many of their ideas for creating a functional space while preserving much of the site's wooded charm.

"We have been very up front with the fact that a lot of the trees that are now on this spot will have to come down to make way for the arts center," Campbell says. "And we have been just as aggressive in developing a plan to limit unnecessary cutting and to create new plantings."

The university has hired The Care of Trees, a consulting firm specializing in tree preservation. Its registered forester is working with the design and construction team to evaluate the condition of the existing trees, recommend and implement preconstruction tree maintenance and develop a final tree preservation plan to be followed during construction. A certified arborist will then implement this plan, taking care to protect the trees that will remain, such as a large American beech that will be a focus of the landscape.

The function and location of the arts center will combine to make it a signature building on the Homewood campus. Recognizing this, university administrators sponsored a design competition in which selected firms from around the world were invited to participate. Hopkins awarded the design contract in June 1997 to the New York-based architectural firm of Tod Williams, Billie Tsien and Associates.

"This is the first design competition in my experience," says Campbell, who has been with the university in various capacities for 10 years. "We did this as a means of getting the best possible design ideas for this site. Besides being a wonderful building, [the winning entry] also was the one design that used less of the wooded knoll that was potentially available."

The greatest challenge of the design was to accommodate all the varied demands simultaneously, creating an environment that would be 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 three-part building will rise from the hill organically, with lower levels constructed of brick with slate sills and coping meant to reflect the prevailing architectural language of the campus. The two upper levels will speak a more modernist vocabulary in glass and steel. Two wings of the center--one facing Charles Street, the other on the service road that surrounds Whitehead Hall--will be built over broad walkways so students hurrying to class and visitors coming in from Charles Street will be able to enter the campus without needing to go through the building.

The upper levels of the structures are to be a mixture of clear, textured, translucent and opaque glass panels so 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 [currently] dark at night--and part of our use of the landscape is to create a lantern filled with light and life. We envision the students there at all hours in an atmosphere that is alive with movement and energy."

This is Tod Williams, Billie Tsien and Associates' first student arts center and its first project in Maryland. 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 design of 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 Hopkins arts center will encourage a free flow of creative energy.

According to Dean 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 says. "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."

Student Council president Zach Pack says that the students are very much in favor of the center and its design. "The problem is that most of us can't wait until September 2000 when the building opens," he says. "Student input has played a large role throughout the entire process. We really appreciate the deans and administration for valuing our role in that [process] and [for] staying focused on the idea that this building is being built for student life.

"We've needed this building for a long time," Pack says. "Now we can unify campus life around one major building, one place that has a space for all the different student groups. What I like best is the open wall idea, where there are a lot of open meeting spaces and conference rooms. I think it encourages students to get together and discuss things."

Fund raising for the center thus far totals $14.5 million.

Waiting in the Wings

The student arts center, as yet unnamed, is designed in three wings, which form a triangle opening southward.

Ross Jones Wing (east wing)
Three university trustees raised more than $2 million to name the east wing in honor of Ross Jones, the university's recently retired vice president and secretary. Nearly 100 people, including all five living Johns Hopkins presidents, responded to a request for contributions. The Ross Jones Wing will include two art studios; a darkroom; two ensemble rehearsal halls; space for the storage of musical instruments; 10 individual practice rooms; office, meeting and lounge spaces for various undergraduate student groups; a student publication production room; and the student groups' mailboxes.

West Wing
The wing of the arts center behind Whitehead Hall will include the Film and Digital Media Center, offices for Student Activities and Multicultural Student Affairs, three meeting rooms, a dance studio and a catering prep room. It will have a second-level bridge to the theater wing.

Theater Wing
At the north end of the east and west wings will be a building containing a 200-seat "black-box" theater, space for set construction and storage, dressing rooms, a green room, a ticket office and a cafe. It is expected that cafe seating will spill out into the courtyard during the milder months of the year.

Mike Field contributed to this article.