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08.22.2012
Q+A> Bob Shook
Noted theater planner and lighting designer discusses the profession and practice of lighting design.
Robert Shook.
Courtesy Schuler Shook

If you’ve ever seen a concert at Millennium Park, you’re familiar with the work of Schuler Shook. The firm does theater planning and lighting design—principal Bob Shook has one foot in each world. Shook helped design the theater spaces in the University of Chicago’s Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts, which will officially open in the fall. It’s the latest in a long list of projects that includes opera houses, worship spaces, and concert venues like the Ravinia and Pritzker pavilions. AN’s Associate Midwest Editor Christopher Bentley speaks to Bob Shook principal of Schuler Shook.


The Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts at the University of Chicago.
Tomm Rossiter
 
 

The Architect’s Newspaper: The Logan Center has been billed as a “mixing bowl for the arts.” How did you encourage collaboration through design?

Bob Shook: It was a very interesting project to work on. We were involved very early on, and it was clear to us from the beginning that the university wanted a building that would encourage the various art departments to work together. We do a lot of university projects and what you realize is those departments, they just want their own space, their own territory. It was just the opposite here.

Each department needs their own space, but the building needs to be arranged in such a way that they’re always bumping into each other. I think the building works beautifully, and it is to Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects’ credit that it does. It’s easy to understand the organization, but at the same time the different areas are distributed in such a way that you can’t avoid each other.

 

The performance hall is very versatile. What were your goals with the design of that space?

The main performance space was always envisioned as a space that was optimized for music, but able to do just about anything: movies, theater, dance, all types of performances. One of the main tenants in the building is the theater and performing arts department, TAPS. They wanted to be sure that whatever we did in this space, even though it’s primarily a music space, it’s possible to do a dance performance or theater performance. The side walls of the stage pivot and can be made into masking curtains; the back wall can be pulled forward. So that space is fairly flexible.

It has a lot of acoustical flexibility as well. There are banners that can be brought down to soften the space if you’re going to use it for film, for example, or spoken word. When those banners go away that space becomes extremely reverberant and you can have a band or an orchestra onstage and really hear how the room reacts.

You’ve also designed smaller spaces. Do you try to achieve the same feeling of intimacy between audience and performer, no matter the size?

Intimacy is always high on the list. We want there to be a really good connection between the viewer and the performer. There are spaces around where the audience is extremely steep and they end up looking down on the performers, which I don’t think makes for a very good performance space. We think that the performers and the audience ought to be looking at each other in the eye most of the time.

Schuler Shook has a big footprint in the niche of higher education performance spaces. Is that just because they’re the ones who are building?

There’s a lot of that activity going on in Chicago, which is fabulous. Ten years ago all the performing arts construction in Chicago was on the professional level: The Looking Glass, Chicago Shakespeare, and so forth were all done in the last 10 to 15 years. Now it’s all on the higher-ed side.

We’re building out an infrastructure for the arts.

It’s appropriate for Chicago, which has always been a great community for the arts.

It’s summer concert season, so the Ravinia and the Pritzker pavilions are in full swing. Do you ever catch concerts there? How does it sound to you now?

I love both. Ravinia was an early project for us and I’ve had an affinity for that theater all my life. The big renovation they did 15 years ago really made it a better experience not just for the symphony, but for the audience as well. They’re hearing a lot better than they used to. I think it will always be a well-attended theater in Chicago.

Pritzker Pavilion is attracting a whole new audience to classical music, which I think is fabulous. Attendance for classical music is down nationwide, and I think Ravinia is certainly holding its own, and Pritzker Pavilion has been skyrocketing. So Chicago, I think, is ahead of the rest of the country in terms of getting people out to classical music concerts, especially in the summer.

Where does you interest in lighting design stem from? Your interest in performance spaces?

My background was in theatrical lighting. Most people working here have a background either in theatrical lighting or architectural engineering with an emphasis in lighting. If you come out of a program that teaches you about architectural engineering, you’re coming at it from a slightly different standpoint. Those of us who are coming from the theater have a more unbridled, artistic viewpoint.

I got bitten by the theater bug kind of early. When I was about to graduate high school in Louisville—they have a fabulous regional theater called Actors Theater of Louisville that I used to attend and worked for.

There was a point back in the early 1980s when people didn’t have anyone to call if they had an architectural lighting project, and they would pick up the phone to call some theatrical lighting designers.

When you work in theater long enough you’re working in an ephemeral process. Shows go up, they play for six weeks and they’re gone. There’s something kind of fascinating about that, but at the same time there’s a yearning for more permanence.

A lot of what we talk about on almost any project we do is quality of light. What is the quality of light? I genuinely want an office space to have a feeling of increased productivity. I want people to like working there and to feel enthused by it.

Are most architects receptive to your influence as a lighting designer? Has that changed over time?

When we first started working, what architects were most grateful for was that we would get them out of trouble. A project would finish up and there would always be at least one space with a lighting problem.

It’s a result of the fact that it’s impossible for architects to be fully trained in every aspect of what they do. That’s why there are landscape consultants, HVAC engineers, and so forth. So it doesn’t surprise me at all when things go wrong if there’s no designer looking after the lighting. Things go wrong sometimes even when there is a lighting designer.

You’ve designed lighting for spaces from healthcare facilities to hotels. Is there a standard approach across such varied industries?

There’s a lot of opportunity there, and a lot of new research showing how lighting can be incredibly effective in helping patients recover. Last week the American Medical Association put out a report that was not unexpected from our standpoint showing how too much artificial light in patient rooms is detrimental. Lighting can and should support the patient experience better.

We’ve known for a while now that blue light suppresses melatonin, so you don’t want anybody—patient or not—existing in a lot of cool blue light late at night because that will disrupt your sleep. We’re starting now to apply a lot of this research to the lighting of healthcare facilities and I think it’s going to make a huge difference.

It’s a somewhat thankless job from a design perspective, designing lighting. Few people who aren’t architects stop and say, I wonder who the lighting designers were.

A lot of people don’t even know that there is such a thing as a lighting designer. They just think about it as part of the architecture.

The user has a certain level of expectation: he wants soft shadows, low glare, bright surfaces. Our goal is to filter out all those things that people object to, that don’t work with lighting. At the same time we want the light to feel as if it totally belongs in that architectural space.

We stand for quality of light. There are so many studies that show the high degree to which lighting can affect performance in an office environment.

Another area is just the level of control. Control systems now are very sophisticated—you could be in a cubicle farm and dim your lighting from your computer screen. People like to have to control of their environment.