HBU’s Morris Cultural Arts Center: Connecting Campus & Community

In Uncategorized by tfwm

When it opened its doors in 1963 as a college with a freshman class of 193 students, a cluster of new buildings, and a faculty of thirty, the school had no chapel. It had only a dream of a Fine Arts Center that would not only serve its own, but community churches, performing arts organizations, and cultural groups.

Houston Baptist University would have to wait nearly 45 years for both-when the school had grown to more than 2300 undergraduate and graduate students.

In early October 2007, the HBU celebrated the opening of the Joella & Stewart Morris Cultural Arts Center complex, a $28.5 million, 91,000 square foot facility built with gifts from individuals and foundations with long and close links to the school: RSMIS Foundation, the Cullen Trust for Higher Education, and the ConocoPhillips Foundation.

Morris Cultural Arts Center-a complex housing a 1200-seat theater/concert hall, a 365-seat chapel, and three museum spaces, and an adjoining 13,000 square foot lobby space-represents a union of the spiritual and the intellectual, in keeping with HBU’s mission as a Christian liberal arts university. Also in keeping with the University’s mission, the Center is a deliberate link between the campus and the community at large.

The Center’s University Theater is home to the Houston Civic Symphony, the city’s oldest community orchestra. Its conductor, Brian Runnels, is Dean of HBU’s College of Arts and Humanities. (The orchestra’s first full concert in the hall was on November 30.) Belin Chapel hosts select University gatherings and worship services, as well as weddings. Critical to making the Theater and the Chapel spaces first-class, multiple-use venues for both campus and community, was the project’s design team, headed by Houston’s Pete Ed Garrett (Studio Red Architects). Garrett, whose previous local projects include work with the Houston Grand Opera and Houston Ballet recruited a team of trusted specialty consultants that included a firm experienced in creating uniquely designed multi-purpose spaces.

JaffeHolden Acoustics (www.jaffeholden.com) had worked on a number of projects with staff from Studio Red in the past, including the Wortham Theater Center, the Hobby Center, and University of Houston’s Moores Opera House. For Morris Cultural Arts Center, the scope of JaffeHolden’s work included architectural acoustics, sound isolation, mechanical noise and vibration control, and sound system design.

The University Theater
The 1200-seat University Theater is a true concert hall, a proscenium stage with full rigging, follow spot booth, and control rooms for sound and lighting-designed for multi-use: convocations, choral performances, wind ensemble and orchestral performances, and musical presentations requiring a substantial sound reinforcement system. The University Theater becomes the third major Houston school to construct a first-class concert hall, joining the Student Concert Hall at Rice and Moores Opera House.

For the University Theater, JaffeHolden focused first on sound isolation and a mechanical room with multiple air handling units. The theater’s acoustics were designed with consideration for the venue’s use as both a concert hall and for pops/rock concert programming; 8,000-square feet of adjustable acoustic drapery can alter the acoustical response time in the theater from 1.4 to 2.2 seconds. For classical music programs, the drapes are fully retracted, allowing reverberation to develop. For amplified programs, the drapes can be variably deployed to achieve a drier acoustic. An adjustable orchestral shell for variously sized acoustic ensembles helps direct sound outward into the hall, and allows musicians to hear themselves.

The sound system for the University Theater, designed by Mark Turpin of JaffeHolden, is substantial: a LCR configuration of EAW AX Series of arrayable cabinets, supported by EAW SB subwoofers under the platform and six EAW front-fill speaker cabinets. (An APB 40-channel analog console handles FOH sound.)

“Most rooms of this size have an orchestra pit that can be used for seating,” says Turpin, “requiring adjustable front fills. This is an interesting case where the orchestra pit [for 25 – 30 musicians] is on a fixed platform and is not designed to be used for seating. It’s either in use, or part of the stage. But the front fills are always in the same place, so they can be hidden in the pit rail wall.” The front of house arrays, also in fixed positions are concealed by an acoustically transparent proscenium, designed with project architect, Garrett.

“The transparent proscenium proved to have another benefit,” says Turpin. “Well into the project, we learned that a fixed electronic organ was to be added to the hall. Because loudspeaker placement is always an issue for an electronic organ, the organ team was very concerned. But when they saw the huge transparent proscenium, they knew they had plenty of space to house their loudspeaker system.”

Belin Chapel: a “difficult geometry”
The (much) smaller of the Center’s two performance venues presented the largest challenge for acoustic designer, JaffeHolden CEO Mark Holden. Belin was conceived of as a chapel (first), as well as a recital hall. The range of acoustic demands on the space extend from the purely acoustical (pipe organ, small choral and music ensemble) to reinforced speech and an amplified praise band, all in a cylindrically shaped room.

Holden found the acoustical challenge of Belin’s “difficult geometry” exciting. Adding to the “excitement” was the significant amount of glass in the room. “Not just clerestory windows,” says Holden, “but substantial windows needed for natural light, and glass behind the platform,” that would soon be a stained glass design.

Encompassing these technical challenges was the constraint of a very limited budget, “significantly less than you might expect to spend on a University recital hall,” says Holden.

Technical challenge number one was that a room with enough volume and height to handle the significant power of a large organ would generate significant reverb, making it very difficult for musicians and singers on the platform to hear themselves. [$1.5 million has been donated for the purchase and construction of a pipe organ, being built by Orgues Letourneau Limitee, and scheduled for installation in summer 2009. Comprised of about 2,500 individual pipes, the organ will function in many roles: as a concert instrument, for student recitals, and for weddings and worship events.] A fixed, acoustic canopy or acoustic cloud is suspended over the Chapel platform to reflect sound back to the singers and musicians on the platform.

Another technical challenge was taming the negative acoustic effects of the Chapel’s curved walls. The solution involved “shaping” the room. “The surrounding walls are covered by acoustically transparent stamped metal screens,” says Holden, “and the walls behind the screening are shaped into an irregular, undulating surface. Motorized acoustic drapes can be extended to cover the walls, dampening the reflective surface, for amplified events.” The Chapel ceiling though dome-shaped, is not a dome; the ceiling is a series of flat stepped planes, each parallel with the floor, directing sound energy down into the room.

Behind these acoustic solutions, quite literally, is a construction technique that also resulted in remarkable cost savings, says Holden. “Instead of building concrete block walls,” says Holden, “the architectural acoustic alternative was to use drywall layers over the structure’s steel frame.” This method of “tricking the physics of sound,” he says, was able to provide excellent noise isolation as well. “Finessed acoustics” is Holden’s description of the drywall construction solution, citing the work of both architect Garrett and project general contractor W.S. Bellows who “did a superb job working with light-weight materials with great care.”

Challenges for sound system design
The same “difficult geometry” of Belin that presented acoustic challenges also presented challenges to the sound system designer, JaffeHolden’s Turpin. The motorized acoustic drapery controls the reflectivity of the walls for reinforced music but, says Turpin, “the room must also be well-behaved for spoken word reinforcement when the drapes are not deployed. The irregular wall surfaces help diffuse the sound and help with the overall focusing of sound in this cylindrical room.”

“The Chapel is a marvelous space for acoustic music,” he says, “but the architectural restraints of this room, even more than most chapels in general, meant there were no good locations for audio in the center line, up high. Only the widely-spaced side positions close to the platform were available.” Architect Garrett created two small speaker bays at either side of the clamshell-shaped platform that project forward, into which are installed Renkus-Heinz ICONYX digitally steerable arrays. These are supported by four Renkus speakers in the platform lip for front fill and a pair of small Bag End subwoofers.

A higher-powered portable loudspeaker system can be added on the platform for praise band events. Turpin chose a small digital mixer for the Chapel because of the number of highly repeatable events booked into this room for which setups can be stored and recalled immediately.

The ICONYX system is used mainly for weddings, chapel services and other events that are mostly spoken-word with moderate reinforced music or playback. “This is a very musically sounding box, compared to many digitally steered arrays,” says Turpin. “The degree of precision achievable with longer columns of digital arrays can be so precise that the sound lays directly on the seats, but loses all character. With the front fill speakers to help develop precedence for reinforced sound, and a judicious amount of delay with the digital steering of the side arrays, we were able to keep the reinforced voice nicely focused to the platform, while still maintaining the sense of majesty for The Word. The digital steering helps keep the audio tightly on the seats, despite the low vertical angle from the arrays to the seating, with a minimum amount of bounce off the walls.”

“Basically, we were given a gorgeous room by Pete Ed Garrett,” says Turpin. “Part of our job as sound system designers is simply not to get in the way of that by making audio as transparent as possible.”

Both Belin Chapel and the University Theater have drawn the attention of the Houston music community, and beyond. “We are handling many requests to use these spaces,” says John Yarrington, Director of the HBU School of Music. The Houston Chamber Choir is booking the University Theater for a weekend sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Houston Symphony is hosting a Baroque Festival. “As with any school, facilities do not in themselves make outstanding programs,” says Yarrington. “But the availability of these new spaces greatly enhances the cultural atmosphere of the entire city, and certainly they will be a vital recruiting instrument for the university.”