Pragmatic Performance Venues

Performing arts facilities can have capabilities ranging from the basic multipurpose school venues to some that rival the most sophisticated commercial theaters.

The new Landrum High School and Chapman High School feature auditoriums that are representative of many designed for a smaller district's performing arts program. Spartanburg (SC) School District 1 completed the two schools — with identical 650-seat auditoriums — in time for the 2006-2007 school year. In addition to performances by school groups, the facilities this past year have served recognition events, the US Army Band, and other community use such as a dance recital.

The auditoriums were part of a design and construction program that set three specific goals for the facilities. Numerous meetings with the administration, faculty, and community produced a consensus that called for cost-effective construction, functionality incorporating current technologies, and design features symbolic of the areas’ heritage.

The district enrollment of 4,800 K-12 students reflects continuing growth since a BMW automotive assembly plant began operations and brought a chain of suppliers and related employment opportunities to the area. Although it was somewhat ambitious for a district of its size to build two high schools, the district's constituencies preferred separate schools instead of a single megaschool. Both have the same components, quality level, and technologies to ensure parity and are large enough to absorb projected enrollment growth.

Landrum was built for $120 per sq. ft., while the larger Chapman High School was awarded three months earlier for $110 per sq. ft. Located in the district's faster-growing heartlands, Landrum began the year with 470 students, with of a maximum design capacity of 1,200 students. Chapman High School opened with 1,000 students, with a potential 1,500-student capacity. Projections are that the new high school infrastructure and conversion of former high schools to middle schools should serve the district's needs for the next 25 years.

McMillan Smith & Partners, PLLC, was selected as the district's architects and engaged two subconsultants to help with acoustics and theater equipment: James S. Brawley & Associates, Inc., Clemson, SC; and Robert J. Cook, Charlotte, NC.

Several local landmarks inspired the architectural features. The Landrum High School fa├žade suggests the historic 1877 railroad depot in the area, and Chapman High School has elements reminiscent of a local textile mill that once led the local economy. The balcony rail and columns with the atrium commons of the Landrum High School derived from the classic Southern plantation home of the town's founder.

Performing arts have been a part of the elective curriculum for nearly 50 years. Approximately 225 students at Chapman High School and 90 at Landrum participate in band, drama, chorus, and a more recent strings programs. Because the previous high schools lacked a suitable auditorium, various programs were held generally in the former gymnasiums or at local churches. Therefore, improved venues for the cultural enrichment activities were among the commitments that helped the bond issue earn passage. In addition to school events, the district's administration openly encourages community use for the auditoriums.

The relatively high cost of auditorium space presented decisions that led to a pragmatic balance of quality and budget. As public assembly spaces, much of auditorium design is mandated by code. Other specific considerations must address acoustics, lighting, comfort, and unobstructed line of sight issues. Trade publications, such as this SP&M, as well as the National Clearinghouse for Educational Facilities, offer information on trends and established design considerations. Just as in this district's case, performance facilities can have capabilities and spatial plans ranging from the basic multipurpose school venues to some that rival the most sophisticated commercial theaters.

Landrum High has the auditorium with a 1,500-seat gymnasium and concession stand located at one end. Clustering them in this manner, where they share a 22-ft. x 120-ft. lobby, instills security for the rest of the facility during after-hours community use. Seating for 650 in each facility was based on the normal practice of using approximately half the maximum student body.

Rows are spaced at three-ft.-six-in. on a 1:20 slope floor. The front row seats can be removed in units to create enough flat floor area to seat the orchestra just below stage level. A facility with a higher seating capacity would have required adding a balcony and costlier construction to preserve sight lines from the desirable 60 to 80-ft. distance from the stage.

The district's auditoriums have a 60-ft.-wide stage, with dressing rooms and music rooms serving dual use. Performances are supported by excellent sound and lighting systems specified by computer analyses. The rear areas were faced to mute potential distortion and echoes. The facility has a comfortable control room and spotlight station. The sound system has 32 inputs and a wireless overlay with the schools internal communication system. Instead of more costly fixed ductwork with muting silencers and diffusers, fabric type ductwork was adopted for the air distribution to gain economy. In an auditorium space, a noise criteria level of 30 or under is normally sought with 25 NC considered ideal.

A fly loft for scenery rigging was excluded because of the expertise students would need to operate the equipment and the cost. The district also wanted to eliminate the risk of students working from a catwalk high above the stage. Instead, curtains, scenery, and lighting are managed from just off stage.

The community is notably proud of the value and quality of the new schools. The balance of the spatial plan for Landrum High School provides 40 teaching spaces, a career/technology wing, three science and three computer labs, and two visual arts classrooms. The three academic wings are organized off corridors that extend off the hub-like commons, where visual control exists down their length. A media center with additional computer lab, media production room and studio are other elements of the plan, along with a distance-learning lab adjoining the facility.

Jim Ladesich is a freelance writer and construction publicist based in Shawnee, KS. He has written previously for Peter Li publications.