Architecture school brainstorms
inspiring future for local arts center © Feb. 1, 2013, Norwich University Office of Communications

Board members from the Flynn Center for the Performing Arts talk to students about their ideas for the center’s future.

photos by David W. Smith, staffBoard members from the Flynn Center for the Performing Arts talk to students about their ideas for the center’s future.

The entire student body of the Norwich University School of Architecture + Art began the spring 2013 semester with its feet to the fire, challenged to impress the directors of a nearby arts center with a vision for the future.

Formed up in small teams with representatives from all four years of the undergraduate program, students were directed to come up with imaginative updates for the Flynn Center for the Performing Arts, a Burlington, Vt., institution one hour from Norwich’s Northfield campus. It was challenging because they had about three days to produce a polished plan that included technical and gesture drawings, layout and three-dimensional models. It was a short timeline for transferring inspiration to paper.

“Having very little time eliminates the option to waste time,” said Dave Mullany, a third-year architecture student from Waitsfield, Vt. “As soon as the ideas come, you’re refining them.”

Mullany was checking the posters and model of his four-person team’s effort, displayed with 19 others in the Tarrant gallery. This multi-use gallery was just one feature of the center, which includes a classic 1,411-seat theater built in the 1930s, a dance studio and space for classes. The students’ work—which addressed the front façade, the gallery with adjoining bar, the main restroom and lower lounge or the dance studio—would be on display for a week.

Students imagined elaborate new façades with curves and cantilevered floors. They tore out walls, replaced buildings and reimagined spaces completely transformed from functional simplicity to the elegant style of 1930’s art deco.

His group was “disturbed” by how separate and cut off the lower-level bathrooms felt, said Mullany. They turned the bathrooms into separate, podlike installations in the middle of the room, creating an emphasis on privacy and self reflection. Another solution was to drive great cylindrical tubes down through the floor, freeing light and sound to circulate.

Third-year architecture student Nu Ferguson positions a three-dimensional model of her team’s design in the Tarrant gallery.

Third-year architecture student Nu Ferguson positions a three-dimensional model of her team’s design in the Tarrant gallery.

“We found it really important that there was some interaction between floors with light and space,” he said.

For Nancy Abbott-Hourigan, curator of the Tarrant gallery who spends a lot of time in the buildings, the effect was dramatic. She said that the project’s goal, which began when the Flynn’s Executive Director John Killacky visited Norwich and spoke to the school, was to take the theater directors out of their comfort zone and propose ideas the Flynn might pursue if it had unlimited freedom and budget.

“This is going to plant a lot of seeds, I tell you,” said Abbott-Hourigan.

Nu Ferguson, a third-year student from Concord, N.H., said her team was more interested in creating a comfortable space than shaking anyone up. For the gallery and bar areas, they proposed tearing out the wall separating the two rooms, bringing the bar up front so it is visible from the street, and decorating the space with colors and shapes taken from art deco themes. They wanted it to be fun, she said.

“It doesn’t have to be one of those galleries where people need to be quiet all the time—all hush,” she said. “We want children to come in.”

Caleb Burrington, a fourth-year student from Lyndonville, Vt., was part of a group that examined the front entrance. In addition to a long, swooping awning that covered all entrances to the theater, FlynnSpace and educational rooms, they tied everything together with a single entrance.

“With the multiple entrances that are there now, it’s very confusing,” he told the crowd of students, faculty and Flynn board members who gathered in the main auditorium for a quick summary of the work. Each group showed a couple of slides and gave a brief summary of their principal ideas before moving back to the gallery to show off the designs individually.

The idea for this project, called a “design charette,” was hatched when Killacky ran into A + A Dean Aron Temkin at a Bela Fleck concert staged at the Flynn. The two had met years before at the Cranbrook Academy of Art where Temkin was a student. A + A holds a full-school design charette each spring to start the semester off on an inspired note, and encourage students at different stages of their education to work together.

Killacky told the group he found their effort both awe-inspiring and moving, and it was exactly what he was looking for when he turned to Norwich for inspiration.

“Your work has provoked me; has shook up my world a little bit,” he said.

Temkin added the project showed a “breadth of possibilities” for the arts center, and was a real challenge for the students. For success, all need to believe their initial ideas will lead to something good.

“They jumped on this, which is exactly what you need to do,” he said.