New UMBC arts center is built for show

The just-completed Performing Arts and Humanities Building atop the campus of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, makes quite a statement from almost every angle — the sun-reflecting, stainless-steel-wrapped Concert Hall; the glass-enclosed Dance Cube jutting from the structure; views of the downtown Baltimore skyline from upper floors.

Phase one of the project was finished two years ago; phase two wrapped up in time for this week's start of UMBC's academic year.


The $160 million, environmentally conscious edifice brings together under one roof (painted white for maximum reflection and energy savings) six departments: music, theater, dance, English, philosophy and ancient studies.

It's the culmination of a longtime ambition. Planning started a decade ago; construction began in 2010.


"This demonstrates the university's commitment to the arts and humanities, which we see as vital to our students' education, no matter what degree or career they are pursuing," says Scott Casper, dean of the College of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences.

Having the English department located in the space reinforces that commitment, as English composition is a required course.

"Every student at UMBC will come through this building," Casper says. "We hope they will have an experience of the arts, too, whether attending a production in the Proscenium Theatre or the gorgeous Dance Cube or the intimate Concert Hall."

Performing arts centers that serve multiple arts disciplines are common; a facility built to serve such disparate genres as 20th-century music (a particular emphasis at UMBC) and archaeology is less so.

Designed by Boston-based William Rawn Associates, the arts and humanities building aims for synergy.

"We wanted to find ways of bringing different departments together," says Clifford Gayley, a principal at William Rawn Associates. "All of them have a presence at the front door, whether with a display area or performance venue. To use a musical term, we were trying to build on the sense of ensemble."

Gayley compares the lower two floors of the building to "interior streets with piazzas at each end, where the major performance spaces are located." This cultural village has "no borders or barriers separating one department from another," he says.

For those studying the arts on campus, and for arts lovers from the community attending diverse presentations there, the new facility is especially welcome. It represents a startling upgrade from the old fine arts building, with its nondescript, well-worn performance spaces and public areas. (Renovation started recently on that building.)


It's not surprising that the arts and humanities building should have striking looks, inside and out, given the track record of Rawn Associates. That firm designed the Music Center at Strathmore, among many other noteworthy performing arts venues around the country. (The local "architect of record" for the UMBC project is Grimm and Parker Architects.)

Multiuse buildings containing multiple performance venues "can become pretty heavy, block-y buildings," Gayley says. "We worked very hard to break down the scale of the building wherever we could."

The stainless steel portion of the exterior provides visual variation; the protruding Dance Cube "breaks up the massing in middle," Gayley says.

The interior of the Concert Hall, with its warm wood tone, seats surrounding the stage and air conditioning vents underneath the seating, is visually reminiscent of Strathmore.

"The use of curves to soften the box of a building is something both spaces share," says Gayley. "The side walls are kind of arced to open up the room and enhance the stage. The aisles are not straight, so that when you look across, you see a sea of seats, rather than a highway separating them."

The hall's first big acoustic test will come in October, when UMBC presents its Livewire Festival of contemporary music. The acoustics were designed by Kirkegaard Associates of Chicago and Denver, a major firm that counts Strathmore's sound among its successes.


But unlike Strathmore's 1,976 seats or Meyerhoff Symphony Hall's 2,443, the university's inviting Concert Hall accommodates 350-375. Seating behind the stage can be used for choristers or audience members.

"As you can imagine, a university's needs for a concert hall are very wide-ranging, and this room can accommodate all those needs and sizes," says Ben Willt, senior consultant at Kirkegaard Associates. "There is enough room volume to achieve the reverberation you need for choral and instrumental works. And there are a lot of adjustable elements that vary the acoustics."

Those adjustments include drapes that can be lowered to reduce reverberation. For electronic music, a sound system with surround capability is being installed.

Although an 80-piece orchestra can fit on the stage, chamber ensembles and solo recitals will be more common in the venue. And when extra intimacy is desired, the Concert Hall can oblige with an about-face.

"The stage can be used in reverse orientation," Willt says. "There is a custom acoustical shell that unfolds and provides smaller side walls, which direct sound to the choral terrace behind the stage."

In addition to all the flexibility, the Concert Hall achieves considerable aesthetic appeal from such features as the rear windows that allow for natural lighting and the thin metal mesh curtains along the curving walls. "They're designed to be visually present but acoustically invisible," Gayley says.


UMBC musical groups and guest artists will be the primary users of the hall. Opportunities for Baltimore-area musical organizations to rent the venue may develop in the future.

Other music-related amenities in the new building include a fully equipped recording studio connected to multiple performance sites, and a space dubbed the Music Box, which can be set up in any number of ways and accommodate an audience of about 100.

"This building takes us to another level of performance, teaching and music technology," Casper says.

The completion of the facility also gives the dance department a big lift, with new studio spaces and, especially, the Dance Cube, which can be used for rehearsals and performances. Seating, concealed in the wall, can be deployed at the push of a button to accommodate about 100 people in the Cube.

Dance events can also be held in the Proscenium Theatre, which opened two years ago. It has what Gayley describes as "a tech-y look," with exposed lighting and wiring. It's a professional-level venue, onstage and backstage. There is seating, including a cozy balcony, for 275.

Other theater resources include a 100-seat black box theater, costume and scenery shops, and rehearsal studios.

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Now that the whole building is fully functional, the performing arts activities will be going on alongside English classes, philosophy lectures and investigations in the archaeology lab of the ancient studies department.

"We're already talking about activities that can bring people from the different departments together, " Casper says. "We want to look at all kinds of ways to connect the dots in this building. Cross-pollination will only intensify as students and faculty are working together in these spaces. I can't wait."

If you go

UMBC's annual Livewire Festival of contemporary music will take place Oct. 16-18 in the Concert Hall, featuring the ensemble Ruckus, trombonist Patrick Crossland, and the Ensemble Laboratorium.

In the Black Box Theatre, the UMBC Department of Theatre presents "Nora," an adaptation of Ibsen's "A Doll's House" by Ingmar Bergman, Oct. 23-26.


For more information, call 410-455-2787, or go to