Beginning in 2012, VMDO set out to establish a program and design for Liberty University’s new School of Music and Concert Hall. Music in all its permutations – from choral, orchestral, and band to amplified rock and spoken word – can be said to undergird many Christian practices and has deep roots in the University’s educational traditions. When asked to help create a new home for this central part of Liberty’s curriculum, we decided it was an opportunity to make a truly innovative building that would showcase the incredible range of ways music resides within Liberty’s unique academic setting.
Because the music and worship programs at Liberty have continued to grow in unison with the expansion of the University, the School of Music is now the 7th largest in the country. Nearly 800 students in a number of degree programs are enrolled in the school, and each formulates their own, personalized approach to making music.
VMDO’s primary goal was to create an infinitely flexible building with the capacity to support any kind of acoustic performance – be it by individual students, the many musical groups on campus, or visiting performers. This flexibility is powerfully expressed in the 1,600 seat concert hall – one of only a handful of its size in the region and one of a few in the United States with the ability to reconfigure itself “phygitally” to accommodate an unlimited combination of acoustic and amplified performances in the same space.
The baseline state of the room is a Hickory-clad chamber that supports natural acoustical performances by producing reverberation times that can project even the most discreet musical programs. By deploying a set of acoustic banners and drapes, the hall can physically mask its hard surfaces and transform into an anechoic room – one that is acoustically “dead.” A wide range of acoustic states reside between those two extremes and can be controlled automatically. Finally, a layer of digital architecture has been designed into the space that gives Liberty the ability to control various acoustic parameters with the assistance of hundreds of small mics and speakers arranged strategically around the hall. What is gained is comprehensive control of the acoustical dynamics of the space – permitting the performer to digitally create a room that isn’t actually there physically.
Other aspects of the School of Music are equally flexible and customizable. The grand recital room on the topmost floor of the building is located to take in sweeping views of the arts quad below and new student center in the distance. Oversized wood shutters can be positioned to shade the room during the day but are then retracted to announce the room to the quad in the evening – making it the glowing focal point of the campus during events. Other recital spaces are similarly visible, a feature that contributes to the feeling that music is a shared asset, and one that ought to be experienced by the entire University community. Where possible, ample space was reserved through the building and the landscape surrounding it for informal performances, whether by individuals practicing a new piece of music or by small groups refining their art between classes.
Most of the building is reserved for formal group instruction. Band, choir, and percussion rehearsal spaces form the backbone of the academic wing of the school and are all carefully shaped to provide optimal geometries for musical performance. More than 50 practice rooms of varying sizes provide dedicated space for individual training, while teaching studios for each instructor serve as learning environments that support the kind of small group instruction central to musical education. Each of the five music concentration areas also have their own “commons” – rooms designed to enhance large group exercises and musical experimentation. 6 large, 30 person classrooms anchor the pedagogical pursuits of the school, and are outfitted with the latest digital technologies that have become so central to 21st century learning.
Photography credit courtesy of Liberty University and David Greenberg.