Creating a New Blended Model for Visual and Performing Arts at OSU

Creating a New Blended Model for Visual and Performing Arts at OSU

Oregon State University’s Arts and Education Complex (AEC) is breaking new ground as a building that supports a blended model for visual and performing arts. The multi-disciplinary program for the facility eschews traditional front-of-house and back-of-house separations, instead weaving student performance and learning spaces throughout the building. Our team’s goal was for the architecture to support the idea of “collapsing distinctions” between audience and performer, rehearsal and performance, students and the public.

A Responsibility not just to Present Art but to Engage Audiences
The AEC’s newly appointed Executive Director Peter Betjemann provided an apt summary of this perspective. “As a public institution acting on behalf of the people of Oregon and the world, we have a special responsibility at OSU not just to present art but to engage audiences. The Arts and Education Complex is much more than a new arts building. It’s an architectural and curricular space devoted above all to inclusivity—a place where students, visitors and audiences will find heaps of educational content and boundary-breaking interventions in the old notion that art exists for a privileged few.”

A Prominent Gateway to Campus
Located at the corner of SW Washington Way and SW 15th Street in Corvallis, Oregon, the building will act as a prominent entry point to the OSU campus. This location takes advantage of heavily utilized pedestrian pathways through campus, while also being well served by public transportation and vehicular options.

Arts Spaces and Venues with the AEC

The AEC is composed of three major venues and several additional spaces that can be used for impromptu performances, lectures and informal gatherings.

Recital Hall
The 500-seat recital hall is designed with variable acoustics to accommodate a range of acoustic and amplified performances—it will be used for OSU student performances, as a classroom for instruction and lectures, and a venue for guest artists. The hall features a single rake balcony design, allowing for access to all seating areas including the upper-level seats from inside the hall. This design emphasizes a sense of intimacy and direct connection with the performers on stage by eliminating a balcony overhang and encircling the room with audience members. The walls are wrapped in warm wood panels, shaped to maximize acoustic dispersion with assistance from suspended ceiling reflectors. Retractable fabric banners can also be deployed to fine tune the acoustic properties of the room, customizing the hall to the performance type onstage.

Black Box Theater

The black box theater is designed to maximize flexibility. (Re)moveable seats and seating platforms allow for a variety of theatrical performance layouts, including a traditional endstage configuration, thrust configuration or audience in the round. Alternatively, the room can be emptied completely for non-traditional performances, installation art, or other events. A tension grid 17-feet above the floor allows for maximum technical flexibility with lighting, rigging and sound layouts. The theater will be used for performance and technical classes as well as an auxiliary gathering space, suitable for banquet seating and event space.

Art Gallery

The art gallery anchors the southeast corner of the building and features 3,000 square feet of flexible display space (including numerous ceiling suspension points) appropriate for both touring and OSU-curated exhibitions. A generous window to the east and south-facing oculus will provide views into the gallery and diffuse natural light when desired, with room-darkening capabilities.

Transforming Everyday Spaces into Platforms for Expression
The remaining spaces in the AEC truly bring the arts to everyday activities in and around the building. The lobby, stretching along the east side of the building, is a bright and airy double height space suitable for organizing daytime visits from busloads of children that will be coming from across the Willamette Valley as well as serving guests with drinks and hors d’oeuvres prior to an evening concert or show.

Since the inception of the project, Holst has worked with a committee that includes representatives from OSU’s College of Liberal Arts, as well as Capital Planning and Development to craft the goals and needs of the project. There has always been an emphasis on the desire to create a space where students and the public can transform everyday spaces into platforms for expression. One of these spaces has been referred to as the Student Heart—a space available to anyone, able to comfortably host a string quartet, dramatic monologue, student film screening, or simply be a space for students to meet and rehearse their art. The Student Heart found a home in the south lobby and features a platform seating area that can transform into a staged area for small performances or lectures. The open mezzanine above allows for views from both levels, while ground-floor windows bring natural light into the space and welcome passersby to engage with students and performers.

Space for Study and Collaboration
Between the recital hall and black box theater, a corridor connects the lobby with the west entrance. This student focused area features built in nooks with tables and seating available for studying or collaborating with others. Conceived as a student gallery space to complement the art gallery to the south, artwork presented here will rotate as needed to support the Art department schedule.

Outdoor Gathering and Performance Space
On the north side of the building, a banked lawn faces the outstretched roofline that covers a low platform, creating a sheltered spot for year-round public performances.

Exploring Possibilities for Mass Timber

Throughout the entire design process, we emphasized making the most technically excellent project possible within the cost constraints. The project is funded entirely through private donations and matching grants from the state of Oregon. Due to these constraints, it was critical for the whole project team to work together to maximize the functionality, flexibility, and potential of the project within a fixed budget.

The AEC is meant to be a campus centerpiece for culture and creativity, crafted beautifully and sustainably. A grant from the US Forest Service allowed the team to explore the utilization of mass timber on the project—carrying designs for both a conventional steel structure and a mass timber structure through Schematic Design phase. The goal of the grant was to exploit the efficiencies of mass timber to make it cost-comparable to steel and concrete. This pushed our team to think creatively, considering hybrid systems and the acoustic capabilities of wood.

In the end, we learned that a few key factors of a performing arts building stand in the way of mass timber gaining efficiencies sufficient enough to be cost-competitive:

  • The large performance venues require long, column-free spans. While mass timber can span these distances, it does so less efficiently leading to deeper structural members. Given the upper reaches of these rooms are occupied by technical spaces (catwalks, lighting positions, etc.) the deeper structure would necessitate raising the roof which has multiple trickle-down costs.
  • The performance venues require complete acoustic isolation which can only be achieved with sufficient mass. The typical construction that meets these acoustic requirements are solid concrete walls and a thick concrete roof. By its very nature, any timber product will not have an equivalent mass and therefore make it inappropriate for this application. These two volumes with concrete walls end up being a major structural system for the whole building.
  • Another efficiency of mass timber can be a condensed construction schedule if repetition and a regular structural grid can be leveraged. Once again, unfortunately a performing arts building contains very little repetition—instead, dozens of uniquely sized, shaped, and located support spaces need to be fit together for maximum operational flexibility and efficiency.

While we were not able to proceed with a mass timber structural system, our team studied and overlayed a wide range of sustainable strategies to align with OSU’s sustainability goals. For example, OSU has committed to a Carbon Action Plan that would result in a net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2025. To help meet this goal, OSU is prioritizing rooftop solar array installation on all new construction projects. Holst worked with our engineers to study all roof areas of the building, identifying the optimal locations for solar panel deployment to maximize exposure and minimize secondary impacts to the structural system or other components of the high-performing envelope.

Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion
Another repeated focus of the University was creating a building and site that is intentionally inclusive by acknowledging and implementing the principles of Justice, Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (JEDI). From an early stage, the voices on the team represented diverse perspectives and wide-ranging experiences—each helping shape the building and experience of users.

The principles of universal design were the driving force behind many big-picture decisions including building siting (position a prominent entry near a public plaza/drop-off zone), interior circulation (clear expression of pathways and nodes, clustered elevators and stairs), and performance venue configuration (single-rake recital hall seamlessly provides wheelchair access to all sides and levels). Both patron and performer restrooms promote gender inclusivity through full-privacy partitions and gender-neutral configurations. The building also features a dedicated room for nursing mothers, and a separate quiet room reserved for building users experiencing sensory challenges. The design team met several times with OSU’s accessibility advocate as well as a third-party accessibility consultant who reviewed major deliverables. From gender awareness to mental health, the group worked through a variety of solutions to ensure that all aspects of the AEC were thoughtfully considered and integrated as part of the project’s design from the earliest stages.

From its inception, the OSU Arts and Education Complex project faced numerous challenges including a change in site, evolving programmatic desires, and a fixed budget in a fluctuating market, not to mention a global pandemic. What kept the project on track was a deep commitment from every member of the team and a clear set of guiding principles that were established at the onset of the project and remained consistent despite the surrounding changes. Now more than ever, major planning and capital projects need clear, common goals and a strong conceptual foundation to navigate changing times.

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