A performing arts center is one of the most challenging and rewarding buildings that an architect will have the opportunity to design.  It should celebrate its community’s commitment to the arts and requires an architectural expression that is not only efficient, but also presents a memorable civic presence.

Shippensburg University, Luhrs Theater

At the same time, it is a highly technical building, weaving together the functional requirements of multiple theatres, front and back of house areas, rehearsal spaces, classrooms, lobbies, dining spaces, loading docks, and parking facilities.

It demands the highest level of leadership from a design team, who must balance expression and function.  It is a collaboration with a large group of stakeholders: artists, directors, institutions, and donors, all dedicated to the success of the project, but often with differing visions of how best to achieve that success.

As an architect, I have had the opportunity to design several performing arts facilities.  My design approach has been greatly influenced and informed by my earlier career as a professional musician (principal French horn in several orchestras) before I became an architect.  As a result, I have had the unique opportunity to experience these buildings from two different perspectives.  Here are six key takeaways when planning a performing arts facility:

  • Do your homework.
    • The performing arts is an inclusive term that encompasses a range of performance types – traditional theater productions, dance, chorale and orchestral groups – each requiring different stage configurations and support spaces.  It is important to clearly articulate the goals for the project by identifying the type of  performing arts the space needs to support.  A ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach will only result incompromises that will negatively impact all types of performances.
  • Align your budget with your program.
    • Due to their infrastructure requirements, performing arts facilities come with a very high price cost per square foot.  Consider commissioning a Feasibility Study to determine the need for and the type, size and utilization of proposed performance spaces.  Doing this type of study will provide an early check on desired spaces and the resulting costs and will provide a baseline document that will allow your architect to align the ultimate space requirements with your budget.
  • Develop a decision-making structure.
    • If the performing arts facility will be home to multiple groups, it is important to develop a decision-making structure that allows each group’s

      Shippensburg University, Luhrs Theater

      needs and dreams to be addressed.  While everyone agrees there is a need for a performance space, i.e. a stage,  the size, configuration, depth and associated support space requirements may be very different.  Having a structured decision-making process in place will help mitigate territorial disagreements over space allocation and will align scheduling priorities, providing a smooth path toward achieving consensus on design decisions.

  • Back of House Experience is as important as Front of House Experience.
    • As a former professional musician, I have witnessed first-hand how the back of house experience can make or break a performance.  Unfortunately, because the back of house is hidden and not part of the audience experience, these spaces are often among the first to be undersized or omitted as a direct result of value engineering.  That is why, during the programming phase, I am a strong advocate for preserving storage space and preparation areas for performers.
  • Complex Building Type.
    • As the adage goes, the devil is in the details, and that is certainly the case for any architecture project, but particularly so for performing arts facilities.  Think about it; most buildings have flat floors, flat ceilings and walls.  Performing arts facilities have raked stages and audience floors, ceilings and walls at angles to improve acoustics.  Very specific and complicated lighting systems add to the complexity as do the large volumes of space above many stages containing “rigging” systems to handle scenery and lighting changes.  This is a very complex building type and should be designed by architectural firms that are familiar with the building type.
  • Acoustics x Two
    • Most people are aware that the acoustics within any performance space are critically important in the design of performing arts facilities.  Acoustical design focuses on enhancing the quality and control of performance sounds.  However, sound isolation, which prevents unwanted, disruptive sound energy from migrating from space to space, is equally important.  As a former performer, and now architect, I enjoy collaborating with an experienced acoustical designer and encourage my performing arts clients to engage a firm as early as

      Shippensburg University, Luhrs Theater

      possible in the design process.

Performing arts facilities are like high-performance machines – they must meet the needs of different performers, from solo artists to the massive orchestral and choral forces required for an opera or symphony. They must also perform effortlessly for their users—the audiences and production companies—allowing them to arrive, stay, and depart with ease and efficiency.  All of this is achieved, in part, through the spaces and volumes of the architecture.

As a former musician and current architect, I believe that the performing arts and architecture are inextricably linked, and that each one makes you more sensitive and appreciative of the others.  Architecture, through materiality, shadow, and form, creates and shelters space that endures as a performance in time.  Music, Theatre, and Dance, create spaces that are ephemeral, yet endure in time through memory, where we constantly reconstruct the performances.  Are you ready to begin creating memories?

*Project completed by L.R. Kimball staff prior to joining the firm.

By: Bruce Schmit AIA
Director of Design – Education
L.R. Kimball