Something Special Inside


Architecture, construction and landscaping come together at the new School of Music to celebrate a special sound.


By Barbara Melendez

USF News


TAMPA, Fla. (Apr. 8, 2011) –  At the groundbreaking for the new USF School of Music a downpour left everyone, especially the Herd of Thunder marching band, drenched.


At the ribbon-cutting ceremony for the new building two years and three months later, yet another storm blew in, with tornado and severe thunder storm warnings, no less. But this time around everyone stayed dry in the shelter of the building’s new concert hall, with the Herd of Thunder on stage, in top form and dry.


What a welcome change.    


It’s hard to imagine now, but when the design team of architects from Hanbury Evans Wright Vlattas + Company (HEWV) and associate architects from Performance Architecture looked at the barren site where the new USF School of Music now stands, two things were obvious. There were three distinct areas with unmistakable functions and there was a great opportunity to do something special.


“Unlike some major building projects, where the site has no clear front or back, there were these very natural faces here: a public face on Holly Drive, a face fronting the academic core and an area that would work as a service face,” said Rob Reis, a member of the HEWV design team.  “They inspired a lasting conceptual organization.”


Hanbury Evans was part of a collaborating group that included Performance Architecture, Bai acoustical consultants and SKANSKA USA contractors, among others. The team started to imagine a structure that would accomplish what the university wanted: a greater campus presence for the School of Music, with numerous ways to connect with the entire community.


“Properly sited, this new building could engage not only music majors and staff, but everyone who passed by – the university community and even the broader public,” Reis said.  And so it was designed to make a statement and to draw people in and provide a pathway that would remind everyone that music is taken seriously, it is accessible, and it is there to be enjoyed.


Arts facilities have a reputation for being expensive. Waiting patiently in the wings of the university’s capital improvement plan since 1982, the long-anticipated project required what the architects describe as “somewhat unorthodox construction strategies” and “a dramatic yet simple defining element” to get the most for USF’s money.


The result?  A beautiful cost-effective building came into being with an open-air public concourse that establishes the strong academic and public connection.  


It was no easy feat to stretch a $37.6 million construction budget to build a facility that houses choral, orchestral and jazz halls, classrooms, faculty studios, and student practice rooms in 113,535 square feet. That includes a 500-seat concert hall and a 100-seat student recital hall. A 1,200-seat performance hall is planned for a second phase. Design strategies involved mixing one of the least expensive ways of putting up a building with more traditional construction methods. 


The decision was made to use something called “tilt-up construction” – a process usually reserved for warehouses, storage and industrial facilities. Concrete is poured in slabs at the construction site; the slabs harden and are then tilted up into place. With money saved using this method, the architects were able to incorporate limited use of more costly pre-cast concrete veneer components that were created off-site.   


The design creatively addresses the resulting rough surfaces of the tilt-up pieces, much like you find when removing a cake from the baking pan, some grains stick to the sides.  The designers came up with special ribbed form liners to create textured walls and painted them red, to distract the eye. They provide attractive accents throughout the building.


“Once we saw how cost-effective this would be, we asked, ‘What can we do to elevate this project aesthetically?’” Reis said.  “We composed the window placement and used our materials to create a bas relief that uses light and shadow to create a rhythmic pattern that’s visible day and night.”


Concrete proved to be effective for the complex soundproofing that had to be provided to the variety of spaces that call for it. The rehearsal rooms, offices and recital halls are all situated within separate boxes that make up the three floors of the building. 


“When everyone is working on how they sound, they can’t afford to be disturbed,” said College of The     Arts Dean Ron Jones. “We already knew what that was like in the old building and we knew that problem had to be alleviated above all else. And then when we want to be heard, in concert settings, that had to be in surroundings that optimize the experience.”


A solution was found. Where sound generating spaces are stacked, the supporting structure is independent from structures supporting adjacent spaces so that sound would not be carried through the rooms, floors, walls or ceilings. Storage rooms on the floors create buffers and fortunately concrete is so massive that it naturally keeps sound from traveling and bouncing.  Building this complex arrangement presented the construction company with a unique experience.


“We typically worry about water, electricity and air but seldom do we have to think about sound as an entity that has to be harnessed, controlled and directed as was required on this project,” observed Chad Laston, Skanska’s project manager. “This harnessed sound became something to celebrate. What other building on campus can you go into and close your eyes and celebrate the success of the project with only your ears? You open your eyes and everything else you see and observe is just icing on the cake.”

Performance Architecture, a New Orleans firm specializing in performing arts facilities, served as associate architects, responsible for programming, as well as designing the interiors of all performance and music teaching spaces.

“A project of this size and complexity requires a team approach to design and construction, but addressing the complex acoustical requirements of a building such as this makes coordination between team members even more crucial,” said Mike Howard, the firm’s president. “The design team worked closely with acoustical consultant BAi and Theatre Consultants Collaborative to design and detail every facet of all the specialized music spaces, including the concert hall, recital hall, and the instrumental, choral, and jazz rehearsal rooms. The end result, we believe, is a collection of performance spaces that are not only acoustically successful, but also visually engage and inspire musicians and their audiences.”


The architectural team enjoyed the involvement of Jones, who led a School of Music committee that made it clear what was needed in the new building.


“The committee was terrific, one of the better groups I’ve ever worked with,” Reis said. “They really understood their departments, and because Ron Jones understands architecture, the arrangement unfolded in a way that – other than the need to find an unconventional cost-saving construction strategy – meant there were no major hiccups along the way.”


As for that dramatic defining element – dubbed the “lyrical wall” – runs along the length of the building’s exterior. Parts of this structure rise to 55 feet and others shrink to bench level. The wall has the building behind it at points, opens to a student practice niche here, a green amphitheatre there and elsewhere offers smaller more intimate gathering points.  


“It creates interest and expresses rhythm and pattern,” Reis said. “It works in relation to the concourse that connects the academic core to the public face and it invites musicians and audiences to gather in all kinds of configurations.”


And finally, the landscaping, like great jewelry, completes the picture.  Rachel Rodgers of L.A. Design in Tampa is responsible for the Florida-friendly, drought-resistant plantings and the Zen-like garden looking out from the building’s lobby.


“We’re trained as landscape architects to think about ecology from the very start and to focus on natural systems,” Rodgers said.  “With USF’s interest in sustainability, I get to put that training to great use.” The affect complements the lush greenery implied in Janaina Tschäpe’s Forest Spirits murals facing the garden.


Even before the building officially opened, it made a great impression. 


“I didn’t realize what the building really achieved until I was working late one night and heard the Master Choral practicing in the Concert Hall,” said Skanska’s Laston. “I can honestly say that I had never before experienced the sound of people coming together and singing with such a unity, or control while creating truly inspirational sounds. It was at that moment I realized that the building we had helped to construct was truly housing something special inside.”


Barbara Melendez can be reached at 813-974-4563.