Virginia Tech Creates a Regional Cultural Destination
The new Center for the Arts at Virginia Tech has truly far-reaching goals for what was—until heavy excavation commenced in January—a rather quiet site dominated by a parking lot along the edge of the campus and abutting Blacksburg’s North Main St. The Snøhetta-designed Center, combined with Blacksburg’s Main Street Improvement Project, will be the capstone to the university’s longstanding plan for a cultural district maintained jointly by Virginia Tech and Blacksburg.
The purpose of the new facility is to combine a traditional formal performance space with experimental Collaborative Performance Laboratory facilities to pursue learning, discovery, and engagement, drawing artists of international significance, says Center for the Arts Executive Director Ruth Waalkes. The center will also house the Institute for Creativity, Arts, and Technology (ICAT), a non-curriculum-based university-level institute established in 2010.
ICAT, with its 3,000-sf lab space and emphasis on developing models of arts education, particularly in preK-12 programs, will be unique among other institutions in the U.S., Waalkes says. “Especially with the construction now going on, it is really exciting. The students have lots of questions and ideas, and I’ve even had some say to me: ‘Oh no, I’m going to have graduated by then,’” she says of the Center’s tantalizingly close 2013 completion target.
In keeping with the mission of creating a world-class Center for the Arts facility, the university’s campus development team decided early to request qualifications from internationally renowned designers.
“With about 12 buildings on the boards and some rather large projects on campus, we were already drawing a high level of top-tier design teams,” says Virginia Tech Staff Architect Lynn Eichhorn, AIA. “We were also drawing very strong responses, in part, by advertising for project proposals in international publications. And it’s fortunate for us to have gotten so many good submissions for this project. The difficulty was narrowing them down to the ones we would interview.”
The architecture team that prevailed for the Center for the Arts includes Snøhetta, based in Oslo, Norway, and New York City, working with STV, headquartered in Douglassville, Pa., with 33 offices throughout the U.S. The general contractor is Holder Construction, based out of Atlanta. Arup is the acoustic engineering consultant.
Working within a regional context
When choosing the location for the Center for the Arts, the university considered several sites, including one that was further from downtown but closer to the U.S. Highway
460 bypass, the main road linking Blacksburg with nearby Christiansburg and also I-81, the main conduit to Roanoke, Lexington, and other university cities along the western spine of Virginia. Instead, the planners chose the junction of the university’s Alumni Mall and Blacksburg’s Main Street as part of an overall goal to strengthen the connection between the campus and the town.
Certainly, the comprehensive facilities of the new Center for the Arts will allow the university to bring in programs that can be much better presented than they can now, Waalkes says. “But this is more than bringing in entertainment, as would be the case with a typical theater. In addition, we have a commitment to bring connection to the community, other parts of the campus, and our students. People in this community truly appreciate the intellectual and cultural connections that are possible in a facility that is part of a university,” she says. “This new facility is really a welcoming beacon because it is so prominent. We see it as a destination that will draw people downtown to go to the restaurants and the Center as a natural confluence between the campus and the community.”
The idea of making this part of the campus into a Virginia Tech cultural arts precinct dates back to 1994, recalls Virginia Tech Capital Project Manager Van Coble, AIA. Before the Arts Center, development of the district included a renovation of nearby Henderson Hall (the original president’s house on campus) and the construction of Theater 101, a black box theater one street over on College Ave.
Those two earlier projects—designed by Moseley Architects, Virginia Beach, and Boora Architects, Portland, Ore.—were very successful and proved that the arts precinct concept could tie the university more closely to the surrounding community, Coble says. As a result, the cultural-district concept has gained substantial momentum, especially in the last six years. It was the resulting expansion of the scope of the Center for the Arts that subsequently led the university to advertise the project internationally, he says.
Of the importance of the new performing-arts and research facilities, Eichhorn says: “We have a highly innovative group who will be working in the building, and globally recognized people who will be performing there. It was very important to have an arts complex that itself was world class. Snøhetta demonstrated that they understood that need for excellence in every detail of the exterior, interior, and landscape design. We wanted also to have the best acoustics, so we looked carefully at all the consultants that the A/Es submitted in their lists.
“Throughout the university, the administration is definitely very excited about seeing the completion of the Performing Arts Center,” Eichhorn continues. “I think the location selection is perfect, especially since the performances are to include evening events. With the glow of the building and the flow of people it will attract, this is going to be a dynamic intersection.”
In turn, Blacksburg shares this vision to attract activit y along that stretch of Main Street, Eichhorn says. They plan a pedestrian streetscape improvement project that should be completed in 2012. The proposed widening of sidewalks and re-engineering of roads extends a half a mile from College Ave. to Prices Fork Rd. The town has already completed a park that is in front of what will become the Performing Arts Center and has enhanced the pedestrian aspects of the town, Eichhorn says. “The Center will still be on the periphery of the campus, which is an embodiment of the intent throughout the cultural precinct,” Coble notes. “I think this is an ideal location.” The project did displace an open parking lot at the site. (Relocating parking is one aspect of an overall campus master plan.) “So we’re building a new parking garage nearby on Turner Street that will serve this facility and the university at large,” Coble says. “That lot is a private/public project between the university foundation and a local developer, and that will open the same time as the Center for the Arts.”
Working within a campus context
In the larger sense, the Center for the Arts has been in the offing for many years, as is evident in the 2006 campus master plan designed by Hanbury Evans Wright Vlattas + Company. As Virginia Tech Vice President for Administrative Services Sherwood G. Wilson, PhD, writes of that plan’s underlying purpose, it is about the university becoming a top inter-disciplinary research institution. In the process, it is experiencing a physical shift from a primarily rural campus to an emerging urbanized central campus. Part of accommodating that emergence and retaining pedestrian connectivity is to consolidate the academic core of undergraduate facilities and, through the emerging cultural district, tie that academic core to Blacksburg’s plan for growth.
As referenced above, the pedestrian-friendly extension of Old Main St. that Blacksburg has proposed from College Ave. to a new traffic circle at Prices Fork Road goes directly past the Center for the Arts site. With both the town and the university working toward the same goal of attracting foot traffic to the area, this stretch of North Main St. is destined by design to become a town-and-gown centerpiece.
In fact, the entire Upper Quad will see considerable change under the 2006 master plan. The Upper Quad is the oldest quadrangle on the Virginia Tech campus and, in some respects, the least planned. Many of the buildings there will lose their identity, if not face outright demolition. “They don’t make effective use of the Upper Quad right now,” says Coble. He explains that the buildings currently there are generally too small, and, being mostly brick, do not fit the Collegiate Gothic style established around the Drillfield, which dominates the central area between the upper and lower quads of the school’s academic core.
Another large part of the university’s Collegiate Gothic campus identity is its ubiquitous Hokie Stone, a multi-hued limestone quarried nearby that has been used throughout most of the 20th century to clad Virginia Tech buildings. The Center for the Arts design originally featured only metal exterior cladding, which, at the behest of the Board of Visitors, Snøhetta modified to include Hokie Stone while still retaining the building’s clean contemporary lines.
The Upper Quad is also associated deeply in the school’s tradition with the Virginia Tech Corps of Cadets. One of those traditions involves formations to and from dining at Shultz Hall. As the corps has grown, though, the dining facility has become inadequate, and a new dining hall is planned for nearby Turner St., with a spring 2012 completion target. But Shultz Hall will not be torn down, despite the fact that it sits in the middle of the site for the new arts center. Instead, the arts center design incorporates the old structure into the new Center for the Arts. (Building reuse is one part of the project’s bid for LEED® Silver certification, a requirement now for all new facilities built at Virginia Tech.)
While waiting for the new dining hall, the Corps of Cadets will continue to take meals in Shultz despite the noise and disruption of construction. “The Corps of Cadets has accepted this challenge very stoically, despite the ongoing construction,” Eichhorn says. “The Corps is heavily involved in the vision of this project.” Cadets will continue to use adjacent areas for formations and drills, she says: “Their traditions are still there.”
“The existing Shultz Hall will be fully repurposed as part of the overall Center for the Arts facility,” Waalkes says. “It will lose its name and individual identity and instead will become the part of the overall complex that houses the visual arts galleries, creative technologies studios, and back-of-house operations for the Performance Hall. Those spaces and the new construction for the CPL and Performing Arts Center will flow together as one cohesive Center for the Arts.”
Where the Center is and where it’s going
The university held the groundbreaking ceremony June 21, 2010, and preliminary site improvements started the following August, Coble says of the very beginning of construction. Excavation began in earnest at the beginning of 2011, and the construction documents were 100 percent complete this past August 1, he says. The project is on a fast track to meet its 2013 completion goal.
The structure is steel-reinforced concrete, Coble says of the primarily traditional construction. W hat is not so traditional is the computer modeling of the building. Holder is assembling the building-information model (BIM). And even though some of the consultants are not able to work in BIM, the university’s Board of Visitors decided that BIM was optimally cost effective, so, where necessary, construction documents are created in AutoCAD and then incorporated into the building-information model. Holder will turn the BIM files over to the school at the end of the project. It costs quite a bit to put all this information in at the outset, Coble says. In the end, though, Virginia Tech will reap the benefits of the work Holder is putting into the computerized building model, he says.
According to the Virginia Tech News service, the budget for the Center for the Arts at the beginning of 2011 was $94 million. Roughly a third of that is coming from the university, a third from the state, and a third from private donations.
Staying on budget apparently will remain a challenge, though. Although the site location is universally acclaimed as ideal, site conditions for construction pose problems. Already the setting of caissons in the soil has been difficult, Coble reports. This is the largest construction project on campus to date, he says, and the ongoing value analysis is being watched very carefully.
Quality control is unerring nonetheless. For example, the engineering consultants deemed the seating layout to be less than ideal for the acoustics of the performance space. The solution was a rather remarkable decision to remove 40 seats, taking the theater down from 1,300 to 1,260 seats, according to a Tech News report.
The overarching vision remains on track as well. “The basic organization of program element, zoning of uses, and the concept of highly transparent public spaces that engage the landscape have all remained constant,” says Z. Scott Hurst, AIA, who, as the Virginia Tech university architect from 1997 until retiring in 2010, was responsible for the school’s master plan, including siting for the Center for the Arts and managing the aesthetic approval process for the project. He describes the original design goals that still remain true: “The performance hall is a formal, more traditional performance space with fixed seating. It is planned to perform at a high level regarding acoustics, sight lines, and lighting control. Because it is a formal performance hall, the functionality of public/performer circulation and appropriate support spaces also is critical. The CPL is very focused on the experimental and, as such, it is designed for a high level of flexibility in terms of acoustics, lighting control, integration of technology, and relationships between audience and performer.”
With this project, the architects, consultants, and a highly sophisticated client are working together to create much more than the sum of the building’s parts.