Temple for culture or community hub? Strategizing the arts venue

When embarking on a building campaign, cultural institutions often place the “wow” factor high on their list of priorities, dreaming of striking architecture or cutting-edge technology.

Arup principal Tateo Nakajima, who has led the design of arts facilities around the world, believes that starting from a different premise leads to stronger outcomes. Before getting specific about either form or function, he counsels cultural organizations to think carefully about their identity and the audience experience they want to provide.

Sustaining the arts

Nakajima worked as a musician, conductor, and arts manager before transitioning into facility design 16 years ago. While the common thread linking his career has been the creation of high-quality experiences for art-lovers, his understanding of what this means has shifted over time.

“I came into design because I was very interested in shaping exceptional, memorable experiences around performance,” he said. “In the last 10 years, I’ve been looking much more broadly at the question of how these projects can positively impact clients’ resident organizations and the communities they serve.”

For Nakajima, thinking beyond the organization’s walls makes good business sense. In an era when traditional arts funding streams are drying up, “we’re finding more and more that institutions are interested in higher-performing venues,” he said. “They’re asking how their investment can make them more relevant and improve the way they interact with their stakeholders.”

At the same time, the proliferation of online entertainment means greater competition for audiences, necessitating even greater attention to high-quality live experiences.

As a result, it’s more important than ever to take long-term financial sustainability into account when designing a new cultural facility. From here, the line to community-building is relatively straightforward. If a group has robust ties to its local and professional communities, it’s much more likely to be resilient to shocks and stresses over time.

To develop these ties, organizations need to provide experiences that community members value highly. And here’s where things get interesting. Different people value different things: some put groundbreaking artistry above all else, while others may be most interested in meeting fellow art-lovers living nearby. Further complicating matters, these priorities change over time.

As a result, providing meaningful, relevant experiences can require an organization’s management team to step outside its comfort zone, thinking as much about social, technological, and demographic trends as artistic excellence.

Designers have an important role to play in this effort. In the best-case scenario, they help institutions consider how architecture can affect their role within the communities they serve, reflect industry best practices, and help them respond to the larger forces reshaping the cultural sector. Nakajima refers to this process as strategic visioning.

Strategic visioning in action

A current project in Edmonton, Alberta, offers insight into this process. In the 1990s, performing arts consultancy Artec, which has since integrated with Arup, was responsible for the acoustics and theatre design of the Winspear Centre for Music and its 1,900-seat concert hall. When the Winspear decided to expand its facility with a new recital hall, it engaged Arup to help plan the building.

Initially, discussions focused on the technical aspects of the recital hall design. But it soon became clear that the rest of the expansion presented equally exciting possibilities.

Since the construction of the original hall, the Winspear’s mission has evolved to encompass a greater focus on education and community outreach around music. “The visioning process for this new extension really became as much about that side of things as about creating a recital hall,” Nakajima said. “How do we create a physical environment that would best serve this very vibrant, community-focused organization with its performance and educational mission?”

The answer: use the public spaces, studios, and classrooms “to create an environment that evokes the spirit and identity of the Winspear and serves as a platform for the organization to bring together its community, making connections between people around music,” he said.

Developing the design brief

To arrive at a design strategy for these areas, the team started by identifying key issues affecting arts facilities around the world, including rapid technological change and shifting audience expectations.

With these concepts fresh in mind, the designers and Winspear staff members participated in a visioning workshop that explored the organization’s core mission, the building’s relationship to that mission, the communities the facility would serve, and how visitors should feel in its different spaces.

Nakajima also spent 10 days touring cultural buildings in other cities with Winspear staff, discussing which design features helped them succeed as community hubs and which fell short.

Arup turned the results of these talks into design requirements to guide the building’s architectural development. Unlike standard design briefs, which deal mainly with quantifiable matters like area requirements and energy baselines, these guidelines also speak to the experiences the Winspear wants visitors to have in its new hall.

Beyond the basics

The design for the foyer, for example, aims to go beyond the basic need of providing a support area before concerts and during intermission. The team envisions a space that will also create a comfortable environment for small groups of staff members, artists, and visitors to meet, exchange ideas, and work. Instead of coming to life only at night, it would thus be activated throughout the day.

A similar goal shaped discussions around the box office. With ticket sales increasingly migrating online, the discussions led to the conclusion that a traditional box office wasn’t the most effective use of space. Because this zone would serve as a primary interface between the organization and its community, the team decided to take the emphasis off the financial transaction. Instead, it envisions a space for discovery around music, with employees acting in a more educational capacity. “It’s like somebody at a record store saying, ‘Oh, you liked that? You’ll like this one, too,’” Nakajima said. “We wanted to create that trusted advisor relationship between the community and the staff.”

Discussions have also explored how deploying technology in innovative ways — through large interactive media surfaces or immersive sound environments, for example — could enhance the experience of personalized guided musical discovery. “The idea is to leverage interactive technology so that people can come in and explore connections between different kinds of music and upcoming events on an individual basis, but also call on Winspear staff in the room for support or to exchange ideas,” he said.

Over time, these strategies aim to enhance the organization’s strong position as a hub for local and regional music-lovers while maintaining its national reputation for artistic excellence. Nakajima believes that this will benefit both the institution and Edmonton at large.

“Ultimately, creating a more impactful community asset helps the institution itself to be more sustainable, and this in turn contributes to a more sustainable community.”


Questions or comments for Tateo Nakajima? Contact tateo.nakajima@arup.com.

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