One might not think to travel to Evanston to get a view of the Chicago skyline, but thanks to a new Goettsch Partners–designed Northwestern University campus building, that has changed. The Patrick G. and Shirley W. Ryan Center for the Musical Arts, home of Northwestern’s Henry and Leigh Bienen School of Music, takes a transparent approach to the normally opaque music-school building typology. The result is a project that connects the far north side of campus all the way to downtown Chicago and Lake Michigan.
The five-story, 152,000-square-foot glass form sits in stark contrast to the campus’s 1977 Walter Netsch–designed Regenstein Hall of Music. The older and much smaller Brutalist structure was the campus’s main music building. Instead of discarding the Regenstein, Goettsch worked to wrap the building and provide interior connections on all levels to incorporate the two projects into one greater whole. For the first time, to the delight of the school, the entire music department, all 650 students, can be housed under one roof.
Nearly every space in the new building sits behind glass-curtain walls looking out over the water. This includes the classrooms, practice rooms, and even the main 400-seat recital hall. To achieve this, great care—and some inventive sound and material engineering—was needed to ensure the acoustically reflective glass would not compromise sound quality.
In the case of the practice rooms, the goal was to isolate each room from its neighbor. To do this, walls, floors, and ceilings received fairly typical sound-insulating techniques, including use of extra drywall and sealed doors. The trick was to stop sound from leaking from room to room along the curtain wall. To do this, custom-designed transoms between panes were engineered to acoustically isolate each room. The result is spaces in which students can practice without the distraction of the tuba next door but with the advantage of full daylight and uninterrupted views of the lake stretching out below them. Though the practice rooms were given special attention, it is in the main recital hall where the project was able to really flex its acoustic-engineering muscle.
The 400-seat Mary B. Galvin Recital Hall is an intimate wood-lined space with one thing that few performance spaces can boast: a stunning view. Thanks to a 40-by-42-foot low-iron curtain wall behind the stage, concertgoers are treated to a vista of the Chicago skyline 13 miles to the south. Even more so than in the practice rooms, sound quality was absolutely paramount in the design of the space. In collaboration with Kirkegaard Associates sound engineers, the window wall was designed as a novel double layer of glass calibrated to control sound quality. The outer layer is a more typical curtain wall, while the inner layer is slightly canted to avoid the audience hearing any sound echoing off of the glass. The air space between the layers acts as an insulating buffer to keep the exterior noise of the occasional speed boat or Coast Guard helicopter from ruining a concert. This space also allows for an operable fabric blackout sunshade to transform the layout and mediate solar gain, as the room is south facing. The undulating wood walls are designed to work with the canted glass wall to absorb even more errant sounds, and acoustic banners can be lowered from the ceiling to “tune” the space for each individual concert.
The performance spaces were not the only ones to benefit from the project’s transparency. The main entry leads into a bright three-story glass atrium that passes completely through the building, from campus to the lakefront. Every classroom and office also has access to daylight. Even the 150-seat black-box opera theater, typically a space that would be devoid of daylight, has a full glass wall, which can be blacked out when needed.
Goettsch worked with renowned New York–based environmental design consultant Atelier Ten to achieve LEED Gold certification for the project. Along with working as sound insulation, the double-skin glass technology used throughout the building has a positive effect on energy efficiency. Additionally, the building incorporates a gray-water system, a design intention sensitive to the building’s location on the lake.
Ultimately, through sometimes unconventional means, the Ryan Center changes the way in which we expect music schools to look and perform. Not bound by small punch windows, practice rooms don’t have to be dark, uninviting spaces, while recitals can be set against the drama of an ever-active lake and a towering skyline.
Benson Industries, Inc.
Super Sky Products Enterprises
Eclad Stone Cladding System, Illinois Masonry Corp
Recital Hall Woodwork
Imperial Woodworking Company
Choral and Opera Woodwork
Glenn Rieder, Inc.