Art to Art

Sept. 14, 2005
Architectural Artistry Transforms College into Digital Arts Mecca

The new $20-million Brown Center at Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) in Baltimore, designed by Ziger/Snead and Charles Brickbauer, is a landmark with clean geometries and striking lines that highlight its role as a home for the growing world of digital art.

Home to classes in experimental animation, interactive media and video, graphic design, photography, and digital arts, the five-level, 61,410-square-foot Brown Center features high-resolution computer and video projection, automated lighting, Dolby multichannel surround-sound audio, interconnectivity, and broadband networking.

“It’s a very integrated building,” says Hugh McCormick, senior associate at Ziger/Snead and project architect for the center. “It’s part of the Maryland Institute College of Art, which is an old art institute in Baltimore with a traditional art, painting, sculpture, drawing program. They really wanted a new signature building to proclaim their new role in the arts in the new millennium.”

Likened to a diamond, an iceberg, and the prow of a ship, Brown Center’s exterior is wrapped in glass coated with a ceramic frit material, giving it a translucent skin that allows light both in and out.

 “What we came up with was a very abstract expression of just glass and stone, which we felt would make a very strong, simple statement and yet address the Italianate palazzo-style building across the street,” notes McCormick.

The building’s footprint is a parallelogram, its form dictated by a site cut with diagonal streets and train tracks, as well as the desire to create a green space.

Brown Center is the college’s first newly constructed academic building in nearly 100 years; the last one was the Italianate palazzo-style Main Building, which was built in 1907. Since then, the college has undertaken several renovations of existing buildings, converting a shoe factory, an office building, and a hospital into useable campus facilities. It has received accolades for preserving the historic character of its neighborhood.

Within the center, 12-foot cantilevers extend the floor plates and support the glass skin. The poured-concrete structural system consists of 20- by 40-foot bays, making it easy to reconfigure the teaching and study areas for emerging technologies and unexpected needs.

“Our job was to design a facility that bespoke the currency of the technology, but also was flexible enough to change over time,” McCormick says. “It’s a long span structure ... and really allows them to move partitions around and change the layout of the three upper floors over time as they need to.”

Flexibility was also needed because the school had not yet fully determined the curriculum for its new program. “At the time that we were designing the building we were really drawing wall space for a program that was yet to be developed: a curriculum for digital arts. As the curriculum developed, we began to work more on the insides,” McCormick notes.

To best suit the needs of the high-tech programs, the architects tucked the classrooms, studios, offices, a 70-seat lecture hall, and a 550-seat state-of-the-art performing arts theater into the interior of the building. Doing so ensured that these rooms are light- and sound-controlled. Hallways that line the perimeter of the building allow good circulation and pleasant views outside.

As Glenn McCain, MICA’s director of construction services, explains, “The lighting is automated, so that at certain times of the evening the interior and exterior of the building light up. During the day some of the lights go off, leaving on the minimum amount needed for circulation.”

“In addition,” McCain says, “there are shades on the third and fourth floors that retract in the evening so that when the lights come on, the entire building will glow, and you won’t see these dark areas where the shades are drawn. Of course, students may drop the shades if they come in to work in the evening, but the shades go back into retraction mode once students leave the spaces to maintain the uniform look.”

Along perimeter hallways, the exposed concrete holds a picture rail reveal and threaded inserts on a 4- by 4-foot grid where students and faculty can hang exhibits. There are also provisions in the ceiling for projectors that can project images onto the walls for video experimentations.

The Hall at Brown Center, as the 550-seat theater is known, is a two-level auditorium that serves both the campus and the surrounding community. It is adaptable for such disparate uses as lectures, films, multimedia and video presentations, and concerts. Acoustically it’s set up for a balance between live performances and video, not a simple feat considering both speech intelligibility and adequate reverberation for concerts are necessary. Acoustic consultant Acoustic Dimensions devised a hybrid acoustic treatment for the space: an even pattern of sound-absorptive and sound-reflective room finishes. An attractive panel system provides a continuous finish, regardless of acoustical properties.

“The Hall is a multipurpose room, which presented us with an interesting challenge,” says Brian Elwell, a senior consultant at Acoustic Dimensions. “They use the room for films, lectures, slide shows, video. That meant we had to give them acoustics that would suit all of those uses. The users can patch from DVD to film projection to get different quality.”

He adds, “One of the most complicated things about the job was installing a single speaker system that could accommodate both film and video. Most auditoriums are not intended for so many different functions.”

A left-center-right surround system meets the cinematic needs of the space. The speakers are located behind the projection screen for accurate sound imaging. They are on motorized winches that raise them for live performances or lectures and lowers them for films. “In addition to the traditional movie screen that drops down in the front of the auditorium, the whole backdrop for the auditorium itself is, in fact, a projection surface,” McCormick says. “It’s a perforated metal backdrop that is treated acoustically and serves as the video and film screen.”

Acoustic Dimensions also set up a Crestron controller for the lighting and sound control system and the public address system. The Crestron master control processor includes hardwired and wireless color passive matrix touch screens in the audio control booth, and a wireless handheld remote, primarily for slide projector control and basic transport control of other devices. There is also a wired control at the podium.

“There is a wireless control system, but we didn’t want it to be too confusing for the users, so we kept the functions down to a minimum,” explains Elwell. “It controls basic things like starting and stopping a film, controlling the volume, controlling a slide projector, and dimming and brightening the lights - just the basic things a presenter would need to accomplish.”

The video system supports single slide projection, side-by-side slides, and video projection. Acoustic Dimensions wanted to minimize the amount of glass in the back of the projectors, so they installed a system that integrates the slide and video projectors with a common lift, allowing users to switch easily from one application to the next.

Brown Center is secured with card readers and CCTV cameras after performances and on nights when there is no public use. This allows access to the building 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. That system is also connected to the back-up generator so the building can stay secure during a power failure.

In addition to the Hall, Brown Center also has a small 70-seat lecture hall on the third floor that is set with tablet armchairs, video projection, and slide projection. The designers opted to make this space a wireless hub because they didn’t want to have to wire the tablet armchairs.

The entire building is both wired and wireless, a mixture of fiber and copper. “A student can take her laptop anywhere in the building and connect to the Internet and the Intranet,” McCain says. “And, it was fully wired for animation and other digital arts. We have independent service on each floor that serves all the computer functions, all the computer labs, etc. It’s connected to the integral campuswide fiber-optic system.”

The classrooms are set up with seating around the perimeter. Ziger/Snead designed a workspace countertop that all the computers are hooked into, which in turn is hooked into the instructor’s master control in the center of the room. From here the instructor can select students’ work to project on the screen. Also in the center of the room are tables where students can move to for open classroom discussions. Each one of the computer labs has an LCD projector and a sound system.

“These computer labs accommodate 20 students each, and they were modeled to be cutting-edge spaces. They [were] really meant to be a laboratory for setting up experiments and not only exploring the possibilities of the computers but also the space, in really a multimedia experience,” McCormick says.

“We have Apple computers mostly, because they’re very good for graphics work, and they’re high-powered machines,” he observes. “And of course with the quick obsolescence, we replace them every few years.”

In addition to the classrooms, a variety of laboratory spaces range from recording studios to soundproofed dark workspaces where students and faculty can set up video and photographic experiments. There is also a large multimedia studio.

“Each lab is really a standalone server, and then we have a big server room on the second floor that really unifies all the computers for the building,” observes McCormick. “It’s a real variety of different aspects - to animation, graphic arts, video curriculum.”

He adds, “It’s a very exciting combination of using the technology to explore art. It seems like they really enjoy the building a lot, and the students really are turned on by it.”

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