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Designing

This Became That?!

How an abandoned pool was transformed into a world-class recital hall.

(Photograph by Robert Benson)
By Stacey Chase
December 14, 2008
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The Challenge This extreme makeover on the Bowdoin College campus in Brunswick, Maine, was like diving into the deep end: How to turn a landmark building sheltering an aged indoor swimming pool -- bone-dry for 20 years -- into a premier recital hall?

Back Story College officials wanted to preserve the iconic character and exterior of the former Curtis Pool building, a two-story Georgian brick structure completed in 1928 and designed by the renowned Manhattan firm of McKim, Mead & White. (The pool was drained in 1987.) "We took almost an editing -- a subtractive, not an additive -- approach," says architect Cliff Gayley, 47, who was tasked with the design, along with William Rawn, both of William Rawn Associates in Boston.

Vital Stats Rawn Associates collaborated on the $14.8-million, four-year adaptive-reuse project completed in May 2007 with Kirkegaard Associates of Chicago and Theatre Projects Consultants of Norwalk, Connecticut -- the same team that designed the acclaimed Seiji Ozawa Hall at Tanglewood for the Boston Symphony Orchestra. The new Studzinski Recital Hall is a performance and practice venue that showcases the acoustically ideal 287-seat Kanbar Auditorium. It also contains nine student practice rooms, a group practice room, rehearsal room, green room, lobby, and instrument storage.

Why Deconstruct the Pool It was perfect. "Even the proportion of the room was close to a 'shoebox,' which is one of the classic acoustic shapes many concert halls have," says Gayley.

Plus, the pool's metamorphosis reaffirms the college's commitment to "put the arts back in the liberal arts," says Cristle Collins Judd, dean for academic affairs. "We now have a campus quad that's ringed by arts facilities." The recital hall sits across from the recently renovated Bowdoin College Museum of Art on the college's grassy main quad, along with two theaters (one constructed, one renovated in the past decade), an Arctic museum, and the library.

How They Did It Limited by the footprint of the building's 19,750 square feet but wanting to take advantage of its acoustical volume, Rawn Associates designed what the firm calls an "oval-shaped vessel for music" to fit inside the shoebox-shaped void created by removing the pool.

Before the interior could be overhauled, H.P. Cummings Construction Co. of Winthrop, Maine -- the same firm that built the Curtis Pool -- had to solve the project's greatest engineering challenge: how to remove it. Workers used steel rods running vertically between needle beams, tightened to high tension, to compress the 20-inch-thick brick walls and painstakingly extricate the 115-ton, steel-and-concrete tub, which literally had been supporting those walls. Notes Gayley: "This pool structure was very well-suited, in most ways, to be a recital hall because of its solid, load-bearing masonry walls that keep in the sound, in particular the bass."

What We Love The bold, curved geometry of Kanbar Auditorium -- a womblike space finished in luminous white birch, with a stage floor of harder maple -- features two arclike walls on the former pool level that envelop patrons and performers like loosely clasped hands. Seating surrounds the stage, utilizing balcony and choral space (when available), thereby reducing the sense of scale in the main seating area and fostering a feeling of pitched intimacy. The arced walls are canted 3 degrees, so sound rises, rather than ricochets.

Upstairs, 10 18-foot-tall freestanding pylons towering over the balcony seats marry form and function by visually containing the cavernous space while hiding acoustical curtains inside. They also serve a transparent function: Taut screens of brass mesh fastened to the frameworks, both front and back, permit sound to pass through to the brick exterior walls beyond, maintaining the acoustical largeness of the hall.

The recital hall is one of two buildings at Bowdoin to receive one of only four American Institute of Architects New England's 2008 Honor Awards for Excellence in Architecture. The other is the newly renovated art museum.

End Notes Kirkegaard's Joseph Myers, the project acoustician, says various acoustical elements, concealed throughout, mean the recital hall itself can be tuned like an instrument. "Part of the tuning process was figuring out for this particular kind of music, or this particular instrument, what combination of curtains exposed, how far, give us the best possible sound," he says.

The envy of even music conservatories, the chamber-music gem has attracted notables like Roberto Diaz and the Eroica Trio to Bowdoin, a cultural center for the mid-coast Maine region. (Previously, the college had no appropriate music performance venue.) Says Judd, the academic dean and an oboist who has performed on Studzinski's stage: "It's a hall in which the acoustics are so wonderful you can hear the last ring of the piano. You can hear a whisper."

Stacey Chase is a Maine writer. E-mail her at storychaser@earthlink.net.

Architects Cliff Gayley and William Rawn

William Rawn Associates, 10 Post Office Square, Suite 1010, Boston, 617-423-3470, www.rawnarch.com

Construction Manager Michael Hricko

H.P. Cummings Construction Co., 19 Greenwood Park, Winthrop, Maine, 207-377-2232, hpcummings.com

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