WCSU’s new $97M facility is an homage to the arts
The contradiction of higher education in the arts is that it expands a mind so vastly and broadens a school’s appeal so undeniably while sometimes taking up residence in a former broom closet.
Recognizing what Daniel Goble called “the tremendous potential of this building, educationally and economically,” Western Connecticut State University in Danbury, with its $97 million soon-to-open Visual and Performing Arts Center, has taken a bolder tack.
The 130,000-square-foot, $97 million building broke ground in October 2011. School President James W. Schmotter will deliver his annual address to faculty and staff in the concert theater Aug. 26, marking the building’s official debut, followed by classes Aug. 28, a ribbon-cutting Sept. 4 and an opening gala Sept. 28.
Goble, whose teaching experience at WCSU dates to 1994, is dean of the School of Visual and Performing Arts. On a recent tour he called the building “a real game changer not only for the university, but for Danbury and the surrounding community.” He said the arts possess the potential to define a community, ticking off renowned regional venues in Hartford, Stamford, Greenwich and Westport that help with that task. More tangibly, he said, “This will be excellent for the businesses nearby and on Mill Plain Road, I can tell you that.”
The building was designed by New York City-based Holzman Moss Bottino and Stamford-based Amenta/Emma Architects. Subspecialists included Jaffe Holden Acoustics Inc. in Norwalk and New York City theater planning and design firm Fisher Dachs Associates.
“Danbury never really had anything like this before,” Goble said, noting there is already interest in the facility from the Danbury Music Centre and the Danbury Concert Association. “They couldn’t believe what the school has accomplished,” he said. “That’s what this does — we’re very cognizant of the building as an economic engine.”
A lifelong musician, Goble admitted to testing the building’s acoustics. “They are among the best in the world,” he said. “And I have been to the best in the world.”
He employed tenor and soprano saxophones in sound tests, essentially launching the building’s musical career. On the stage of the main music theater, beside Yamaha and Steinway concert grand pianos, he said, “The acoustics are amazing. People will want to play here.” He pointed with enthusiasm toward the room’s details, including acoustically sensitive seats and lunar-surface doors. “Gouged plywood,” he said, identifying the doors’ wildly pocked veneers.
The school will maintain its on-campus Ives Concert Park for concerts, including an Aug. 17 show by The Moody Blues.
The music wing’s acoustics are adaptable. Curtains descend in the concert hall and entire walls pivot on hinges in classrooms as harsher or gentler sound is required. Ever the instructor, Goble changed the sound of a large room in about two minutes, snapping his fingers to demonstrate the difference.
The building boasts a U.K.-made Solid State Logic recording system. Douglas O’Grady, associate professor of music, and Sheldon Steiger, the school’s audio and information technology coordinator, worked on the board and on the grand piano-equipped recording studio’s air conditioning when Goble toured the building recently with the Fairfield County Business Journal. They confirmed the equipment’s appeal by noting that, “without advertising,” they have already received two requests to rent the so-called “duality mixing console.” Their assessment of the technology was instantaneous: “The best. Without question.” They said there are only 300 systems like it in the world.
Asked if the building’s facilities could make it a moneymaker, Goble said, “Absolutely — and not only from pop and jazz recording. This is an incredible place to record classical music; there are very few places to record a string quartet, for example. We have an incredible concert hall coupled with a recording facility.” The teaching experience, however, “remains first and always most important.”
The building’s three wings — devoted to theater, music and art — meet in elevated pathways reminiscent of highway overpasses. The effect unites the three major expressions of the human experience and at the same time, for practical reasons, segregates them.
“The space itself can elevate the artistic experience,” Goble said. “But it also has to function. Everything we’ve done here was done with a great deal of thought.”
The wings are entirely different from the ground up. A 350-seat theater dominates the theater wing, the same size as the acoustic music theater, but focused on stagecraft. Its 70-foot-high stage manifests itself outside as a glistening steel cube.
Inside, any student who works in the theater will experience technologies that are the equal of professional productions, Goble said. “A graduate of this department will have worked on the same equipment as the best facilities in the world — hands-on experience.” It will be rented when not in use by the school.
Goble walked through an adaptable “black-box” theater where layouts of seating and stage come and go as needed. Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night” premieres there Oct. 17.
The art world has no concern for acoustics, but paint and clay spill all the time. As such, the art wing’s floors are polished concrete. All the walls are tackable. The studio windows face north, which artists love for steady light. As he toured with building coordinator Sarah Renninger, Goble spoke with workers putting the finishing touches on the sculpture studio, which is equipped with ducting for those who sculpt with blow torches and arc-welding rods.
Goble said the original idea for the building dated to 1970 and that the effort gained steam in 2002. Surveying the results, he said, “We feel so strongly about the connectivity of the arts, their placemaking ability. There has been so much research on the economic vitality provided by the arts community and the benefits to the economy.”