A Performing-Arts Center With Everything a University Could Want

Author: Lawrence Biemiller

What people like about Collegiate Gothic buildings are their intimate courtyards, their angled, asymmetrical details, their quirky staircases and oddball towers and half-hidden entryways. Bryn Mawr College and Princeton and Yale Universities have splendid examples.

But the bigger campus Gothic buildings grow, the less likely they are to be endearing. Stretch the walls too far between towers, raise the roofs too high, and the buildings become intimidating. Gothic doesn’t scale well, partly because the bigger the buildings get, the more tempted architects are to skimp on costly Gothic details —buttresses, vaulted arches, chimneys, assorted battlements. Most modern buildings are held up by concrete and steel, after all, and the only way they’re likely to be attacked is in the press.

The architects of the University of Notre Dame’s new Marie P. DeBartolo Center for the Performing Arts clearly struggled to humanize its scale. They added alternating bands of colors in the enormous roof and articulations in the brickwork of vast blank walls. But the architects, from the just-disbanded firm Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer Associates, could not disguise a facade that seems to stretch as long as the university’s famous football field. Even on a campus of large buildings and even larger quadrangles —almost nothing at Notre Dame is small —the $63.6-million performing-arts center feels huge.

In fact, it is. With five separate venues, a spacious lobby running through the middle of the building, scene and costume shops, a recording studio, classrooms, offices, and various amenities —177 rooms and 151,000 square feet in all —the building has everything a university could want in a performing-arts center, and then some.

The interior is not Gothic at all. Each theater has a somewhat different aesthetic, but the two largest, the 900-seat concert hall and the 350-seat main stage, follow the lobby in featuring sweeping curves, warmly finished wood, and colorful upholstery. Patrick Ryan, the performing-arts center’s creative director, says during a tour that the building has a palette of 84 different shades. Which is a lot —the traditional big box of Crayola crayons, the box with the built-in sharpener, has only 64 colors. On the other hand, Notre Dame’s is not a campus of subtleties —the gold-domed Main Building is full of astonishing 19th-century trompe l’oeil, including a whole corridor painted to look as though it were hung with giant historical tapestries.

The most subdued space in the new performing-arts center is, by definition, the black-box theater, which can seat about 100. It and the main stage share the scene shop, which sits on a separate concrete foundation to absorb construction noise. The main stage, meanwhile, is any director’s dream. The proscenium can be narrowed from 42 to 32 feet, the fly system boasts more than 70 lines, trapdoors can open almost anywhere, and the front portion of the stage can be lowered to serve as an orchestra pit.

The concert hall is similarly flexible —fabric hangings and wall coverings can be retracted to fine-tune the room’s reverberation time for different kinds of performances. The room, with a high, trussed ceiling and seats arranged within giant ovals, is meant to accommodate speakers as easily as symphonies. “It’s our most variable acoustic space,” Mr. Ryan says. “We can change the room in about a minute.”

The other two venues are more specialized. The movie theater, with steeply raked seating for 200, boasts Indiana’s only THX-certified sound system, but the space can also be used as a lecture hall. The organ and choral hall, on the other hand, is meant specifically for sacred music, either sung or played on a handsome 35-stop, 2,551-pipe organ. The German Baroque-style instrument, built for $1-million by Paul Fritts, can be played either with fans powering the bellows or with an organ student getting a step-machine workout on a set of pedals behind the pipes.

Section: Campus Architecture
Volume 51, Issue 29, Page B14



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