The Austin Chronicle

How to Hire an Architect

By Robi Polgar, October 15, 1999, Arts

First, gather a committee of all sorts of interested parties, whose input is crucial to creating a facility that will support as much art as is architecturally possible. Call it the ARTS Center Stage Architectural Design Committee. "I think it's about 18 people," offers Christina Read, executive director of ARTS Center Stage (ACS), "that will make a recommendation to the executive committee of ARTS Center Stage. It is made up of representatives from the small organizations, from the three big organizations [Ballet Austin, Austin Lyric Opera, and Austin Symphony], three architects, [scenic designer] Christopher McCollum. We have finance people, [ARTS Center Stage board chair] Ben Bentzin, Rusty Tally, and me." Include Melissa Eddy, executive director of Chorus Austin, to assess the needs of vocal artists performing in the space, and Ann Ciccolella, representing the dozens of small performing companies hungering for that magic black box theatre space. Add some architects, and put them all under the gentle, guiding eye of Wayne Bell, the chair of the committee.

Then, of course, you hire consultants, in this case, Josh Dachs of Fisher-Dachs.

"Well," Bell explains, "we've had the theatre consultant as the lead consultant. And under him an acoustician and a theatre management person and a cost estimation firm. And they are preparing what is known as an architectural program that the architect would follow in designing the building that would meet the needs of the different user groups, primarily for ACS and the symphony, opera, and ballet, and determine what size theatres, what capacities, whether we'd be in competition with other groups. And that will be finished soon, this month."

Then you find some potential architects.

Bell continues: "So we are now in the process of selecting the architect, the prime architect, the signature architect. We went out for an RFQ -- a request for qualifications -- and we got 14 responses. We narrowed the list, and we're now down to three firms: Barton Meyers, Polshek Partnership, and Skidmore Owings & Merrill."

Then you put the architects through their paces.

"All of these architects," says Read, "through the process that we've had -- through the public lectures and the board interviews and the design team interviews -- have been scrutinized pretty deliberately with specific questions that were posed to all of them. [They have made] presentations to see what their other [projects] look like. We're not only looking for their design for a theatre, but also for their design [aesthetic]. We are looking for an architect that can capture what Palmer looks like now and to try to think about how he or she might transform it into a performing arts center.

"We're not in any hurry to get someone on board, because we have another process that is moving along right on schedule, and that is the planning process. The Fisher-Dachs team has been programming the building, so when the design architect comes on board they will be able to take the program which says you need this many seats and here's the halls and here's what you need for backstage, here's what you'll need for concessions, the catering kitchen. And we've been talking to the small arts groups, the large arts groups, the design team, which includes people from all of those groups plus [designer] Chris McCollum. We're getting as much input as we can before we make a decision, but all along this program is being done, so we're not losing time.

Next you take a trip to look at these potential architects' work.

"We just did this trip looking at two of each of their projects," describes Bell. The trio of Bell, Read, and board chair Bentzin saw: "Barton Meyers' New Jersey Performing Arts Center and the Cerritos Center for the Arts in California; Polshek Partnership's Carnegie Hall renovation and Yerba Buena Theatre Center [a San Francisco redevelopment project]; and Skidmore Owings & Merrill's Chicago Lyric Opera House and Symphony Hall in Chicago. We're deliberating which of the three of these firms will do the best for us."

"It was fantastic," says Read of the trip. "It was just awesome. We went from New York to L.A. We went to Carnegie Hall first, which is a wonderful place to start because it has a lot of history, and it's a place that many want to emulate. We saw two or three venues there, including a wonderful recital hall. We were looking at things like their main hall -- how many seats; what were the acoustical qualities, how was the backstage -- soup to nuts, everything. We had questions that the arts organizations who are on the design team gave us to ask the people that led us through the different facilities: everything from financial questions to how does the orchestra shell work, from the size of doorways to the ramp systems -- little, small things to very large things. Some of these theatres were very technologically advanced. Whether they renovated, transformed, or built from scratch, we were looking at their capabilities. Some of the designs were very attractive, others we weren't so impressed with, but each one had information that helped us gain further knowledge, whether it was good or bad. One of our questions was, 'What would you do differently next time?'

"The New Jersey Performing Arts Center was fabulous," Read continues. "Barton Meyers, who was the architect on that, was able to utilize the space, [creating] spaces that were very informal and intimate. From the minute you walk into this huge center, you feel a terrific warmth about it."

Then you make a recommendation to the board.

"The board makes the final assessment," describes Read. "The design team will make a recommendation to the executive committee of ARTS Center Stage and then the executive committee will deliberate and make a recommendation to the board, and then the board will make a final decision."

"We probably will be selecting in two weeks," adds Bell "We're selecting firm one, then firm two. We'll go into negotiations with number 1. If we can reach a settlement, we'll go under contract with them; if not, then we'll go on to number two, and if we can't, we'll go on to number three, and right on down the line. Any one of the three, actually any one of the probably five. We cut out a couple of firms that would have been excellent. Most of them were good, some of them not as good, we felt, for Austin, and for our purposes. Some with not as much experience as we would like to have them had. Many of them had done theatres, but not a multi-use theatre, etc. We'll select the architect, and they'll hit the road running. Because we've gotta go by the time schedule. After they're selected, they'll review this program that we're giving them, and they will confirm that program, that the program is doable. We're still shooting for completion by 2003."

Oh, and last of all, you start to build.

"We probably will not begin [renovating the performing arts center] until July 2001," says Bell, but he believes the Long Center will still come in on schedule. "It's going to depend on getting the architect on board and getting contractors. With Austin's boom, it could change. And we're aware of that, and we hope not. And of course, it depends on how the city moves on the civic center -- the new Palmer [which ultimately replaces the city coliseum] -- and the parking structure. A lot is enmeshed in those two projects together. That and the park: The park is a pretty big undertaking."

"This project is such a huge addition to the city," says Read. "It will transform the city. It will not only be transformed in itself, but it will transform the city in so many ways. For the city to come of age, especially in the arts arena."

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