Engaging all the senses - Isthmus - Jonathan Cartu Global Design, Architecture & Engineering Firm
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Engaging all the senses – Isthmus

Engaging all the senses – Isthmus


Pass the new Hamel Music Center after dark and the first thing you notice are the lobby lights. The individual LED lamps sparkle amid a tangle of copper tubing, their light piercing the building’s gloom like tiny beacons.

The massive custom fixture, a gift from the Class of 1965 and built by Manning Lighting in Sheboygan, is the first of many breathtaking architectural details of the building, which houses new rehearsal and performance spaces for UW-Madison Mead Witter School of Music students and faculty.

The 66,000-square-foot building squats at the corner of Lake Street and University Avenue in a space once occupied by a parking lot and some undistinguished structures. Once inside, it’s easy to see we’ve entered the future of the performing arts.

The Hamel Center’s simplicity helps define its beauty. In addition to the lobby and box office, the building houses three distinct performances spaces: the Sing Man & Florence Lee/Annette Kaufman Rehearsal Hall, which has flexible seating; the smaller Collins Recital Hall, which seats 299; and the larger Mead Witter Foundation Concert Hall, which seats 660.

A pair of “green rooms” that function as preparation areas, a handful of dressing rooms and administrative offices, a conference room, and even an audio and video recording studio round out the $55.8 million structure. Most rooms bear the names of donors, an important feature, given that the Hamel Center is the only UW-Madison campus academic building developed entirely with private funds.

Most campus buildings emerge through a combination of state funding and private donations, according to Susan Cook, a professor of musicology and School of Music director. Not so with the Hamel Center.

“Wisconsin is very unusual in the degree to which the state government and the UW system are intertwined,” Cook says. Former UW Chancellor John Wiley adds that funding decisions often come down to state priorities and legislator preferences. It was during Wiley’s tenure, from 2001 to 2008, that the idea for a freestanding recital facility first arose. The legislature’s response, he says, was not positive.

“I noticed it was relatively easy to find funding for the science, technology and business schools, but we had a large amount of trouble funding the fine arts,” says Wiley, who remained committed to creating better facilities for the art department and the music department, which holds concerts in Mills Hall and Morphy Recital Hall, both with problematic acoustics.

“I couldn’t get any state money because the state was reluctant to fund humanities projects, wanting instead to concentrate on disciplines that had more economic development potential,” says Wiley. “But the arts do have economic potential in the audiences they draw and quality of life they support. The perception that the arts don’t contribute to the economy is dead wrong.”

Wiley’s efforts floundered until 2007 when two alumni couples stepped forward with sizeable contributions for a new music center. Pamela O. and George Hamel Jr. pledged $15 million, while Carol and Paul Collins pledged $5 million. That enabled School of Music officials in 2010 to hire New York architectural firm Holzman Moss Bottino, which, some 40 years earlier, helped turn the old Capitol Theater and surrounding retail space into the Madison Civic Center, the precursor to Overture.

In 2015, George W. Mead II and his wife, Susan Feith, pledged $25 million from the Mead Witter Foundation to the project. Along with help from some 150 other smaller donors to date, their contribution helped raise the necessary funds.

The donors will be treated to a private concert, the Hamel Center’s first performance event, on Sept. 26. On Oct. 6, the Wisconsin Union Theater will celebrate its 100th anniversary with a concert by award-winning male a cappella group Chanticleer at the new facility. More than 20 different performances will fill out the rest of October, and the pace only increases from there.

No doubt performers and audience members alike will be impressed by the facility’s beauty and its acoustic perfection. Cook told lead architect Malcolm Holzman she wanted a facility “both elegant and rugged.” Holzman and architects of record at Strang Inc. rose to the challenge.

“Elegant is a wonderful word, which I took to mean distinguished and very special,” says Holzman, whose firm specializes in public buildings and performing arts centers. Holzman also tapped nearly 20 state firms to provide materials and subcontracting work for the building. From copper light fixtures to stone steps to wood harvested from Menominee tribal forests, staying close to home is part of Holzman’s personal ethos, and is just plain good business, he says.

The  wallpaper in the Collins Recital Hall is based on a print by William Weege, a UW-Madison professor of art emeritus and founder of Tandem Press. The saturated colors and sturdy fabrics in the auditoriums evoke Wisconsin’s seasons and lakes.

Most impressive, perhaps, are the facility’s acoustic properties, many of which are incorporated into the interior designs. Located on a noisy campus corner, the Hamel Center is virtually sound-proof from exterior to interior, and from one performance hall to another.

Much of this is achieved by 16-inch concrete walls for each auditorium separated from the rest of the building by an Acoustical Isolation Joint, a 2-inch-wide gap with no solid connections that might create reverberations either from within or without the performance spaces. All three spaces are part of what Strang architect Tim Crum calls “a box-within-a-box concept.”

The concert hall is equipped with surfaces and curtains designed to dampen or reflect sound, depending on the performers’ preferences. Vast open spaces behind large oval screens that are part of the wall décor take in the sounds produced on stage, reflecting them back with enhanced fullness and volume. Both beauty and utility come together repeatedly at the Hamel Center, making it a striking performance space that will appeal to audience members’ combined senses, Holzman says.

“In thinking about acoustics, I realized I’ve never been to an excellent performance in an auditorium that’s ugly,” Holzman explains. “This is because our senses all connect. In the Hamel Center, our senses of sight, sound, touch and smell will go into making very special experiences.”



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Jon Cartu

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