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Building profile: Studzinski Recital Hall

“Architecture,” said Goethe, “is frozen music.” Bowdoin College’s Studzinski Recital Hall, located within the envelope of a 1927 McKim, Mead & White pool building, offers a rebuttal to this famous remark in the form of a sensitive acoustic retrofit. The design, by William Rawn Associates, Architects of Boston, retained the shell of the original pool building, a rectangular shoebox with little acoustical value of its own, while placing an oval-shaped “vessel for music”—the firm’s description of the performance space—within this envelope. Acoustic pylons, sitting above the stage and seating, frame the new space but nevertheless allow the outline of the original building, including large windows flanking the auditorium, to be seen from behind. With the audience placed on all four sides of the stage, the hall does not recede into the darkened background during a performance but remains visible as the carrier for the music itself. The architecture, then, is anything but static during a performance; rather, it’s a force in animating music from notes to performers and to instruments, and then to the audience’s ears.

Studzinski Hall was completed in 2007 and won the 2012 National AIA/CAE Educational Facility Design Award, in addition to winning multiple Boston Society of Architects (BSA) prizes in the past several years, including the 2011 BSA Sustainable Design Award. Though the latter award cited specific environmental building systems as evidence of the building’s sustainable features, it was the choice to retain the original building that, in the words of the citation, put “sustainability at the very heart of design strategy.” The donor of the original pool building was Cyrus Curtis, the benefactor behind the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, so the space already had, if in name only, a musical genealogy.

Anthony Antolini, director of the Bowdoin Chorus and a 1963 graduate of the college, remembers the building as the Curtis Pool during his undergraduate days. Antolini returned in 1992 to lead the chorus, and found the selection of available performance spaces at Bowdoin less than ideal. On one hand, there was Bowdoin Chapel, designed by Richard Upjohn and completed in the 1850s, perfect for a cappella and organ concerts but lacking the space and configuration for a large chorus or an orchestra—and stone walls too reverberant for brass instruments. Worse, the chapel’s configuration in the English Collegiate style, with rows of pews directly facing each other, forced audience members to constantly look left, right, left, right—like following a tennis match—to see the performers on either side. Though there was an alternative space for larger groups—a theater building designed for amplified sound—the chorus was “always on the short end of any bargain,” says Antolini, forced to choose between the chapel, never conceived as performance space, and the theater, acoustically dead at best.

Studzinski Hall, by contrast, is “a dream come true,” according to Antolini, who credits Bowdoin president Barry Mills for making the new space possible. Bowdoin—perhaps running counter to the trend of the university as expansionist real-estate developer—has typically viewed its historic campus as a landscape to be preserved and adapted anew. Curtis Pool, unused for years since the construction of a new Olympic-size facility, offered a location at the center of campus and a handsome Colonial Revival exterior. The converted building is “actually too small” at 282 seats “in terms of the size of the audience,” according to Antolini, who says that many events attract concertgoers from almost a two-hour drive away. Nevertheless, Bowdoin and the architects realized that a “monster concert hall would be a big mistake,” not the least because it would require an entirely new building at the outskirts of the campus rather than a location at its historic heart.

According to Cliff Gayley AIA, a principal at William Rawn Associates, Architects and the lead architect on the retrofit, two things stand out about the design of Studzinski Hall five years after its completion. First, the novelty of the reuse of the existing pool building as a recital hall; second, and more important, the decision—the architect’s own—to place seating around the stage, allowing the stage to be visible from all four sides. With no proscenium to frame the performers, the audience and the performers are visible from every seat, creating a sense of intimacy that melds music, audience and architecture.

The acoustics at Studzinski Hall have won universal praise. Antolini deems Studzinski one of two great concert venues in the state of Maine, along with the far larger Franco-American Heritage Center in Lewiston—itself a converted space, a former cathedral. The acoustician on the project was Kirkegaard Associates, who collaborated with William Rawn Associates, Architects on many other projects, most notably Seiji Ozawa Hall at Tanglewood in Lenox, Massachusetts. The design features four adjustable curtain elements to modify the sound of the space depending on the number and character of the performers: 1) an upstage wall directly behind the performance stage, 2) a double curtain located in the ceiling, 3) a back-of-the-house wall behind the audience and 4) curtains within the flanking pylons.

According to Delmar Small, the concert manager for the auditorium, the upstage curtain greatly aids the clarity to performers onstage—acoustics are equally important for those playing as for the audience—so is left deployed the majority of the time. The ceiling and back-of-the-house curtain, largely invisible to the audience behind their housing, are the most frequently adjusted and can radically alter the acoustics of the space. Meanwhile, the pylons, the most visible acoustic and architectural element in the hall, have remained in the same configuration despite their flexibility. Says Small, “At the tuning of the hall, the acousticians found that the best setting was to have the front two pylons’ curtains deployed and leave the rest undeployed. We haven’t felt the need to fiddle with that formula much at all.”

The building taken as a whole reflects this balance between stasis and mutability. By keeping the exterior of the Curtis Pool building while inserting the performance space inside—and by offering peerless yet tweakable acoustics within—Studzinski Hall’s design reminds us that architecture is not a frozen score on paper but, in the best cases, a composition to be heard anew and again with each performance.

Patrick Ciccone is a partner and preservationist at Gambit Consulting in New York City.

Top image by Robert Benson Photography.

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