Good vibrations

Creating state of the art music and dance spaces at the expanded Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago

Remarkable growth in music and dance class programs over the last ten years prompted the Old Town School of Folk Music to expand its existing facilities on North Lincoln Avenue in Chicago. VOA had the privilege of designing the first newly-constructed building by this unique institution, the largest community music school in the world. The project program for the expansion included performance and practice studios for both traditional and ethnic dance and music, in a high-performance, acoustically-engineered structure.

Founded in 1957, The Old Town School of Folk Music (OTSoFM) celebrates music and cultural expressions rooted in American and global traditions. A unique, beloved and historic cultural institution in Chicago, the OTSoFM subscribes to the philosophy of its founders, music is birthright for everyone from stroller to walker. The school believes in giving people of all ages the tools to make their own music and learn from each other. Currently, it teaches 6,600 students per week at three locations, performs community outreach, hosts concerts by everyone from Jeff Tweedy to Tinariwen, has two stores and co-sponsors the Square Roots music festival.

The resulting Old Town School of Folk East Building–opened in 2012 as the OTSoFM turned 55–added 27,000 square feet of space, 17 state-of-the-art classrooms as well as a 150-seat flexible use performance space, The Myron R. Szold Music and Dance Hall. The LEED Gold certified building forwards the spirit of the institution and its mission, and creates optimal conditions for the day-to-day work of passing on folk music and dance culture.

Music comes in the form of sound after all, so creating the conditions for good sound is paramount in music school design. When Old Town School came to us, the staff was working in spaces (in refurbished buildings on Armitage Avenue and in Lincoln Park) that while charming, were not built for music. The staff and students had issues with sound and the environment in general. Noise, from within the spaces or outside them, the quality of sound in the space as well as background noise generated by mechanical systems were all causing headaches in these existing buildings.

Acoustics drove the organization of space for the project. Early in the design, we considered numerous strategies such as reducing noise from the mechanical systems by adjusting the location of fans. Once we established the program, we concentrated on shaping the rooms, sound absorption in the rooms and separation between the rooms (mechanical to music room and room to public space). We wanted to make sure that we created an environment supporting both acoustic and amplified music. Talaske of Oak Park, IL served as the acoustics consultant on the project.

There’s nothing more folk than a hootenanny, and the best ones happen in a barn or on a front porch. So while sound quality was the organizational driver, the front porch was the metaphor that inspired the East Building. Old Town School wanted the building to open to the street and invite the diverse community inside to participate. They also wanted informal places for students, faculty, or the curious to wander in and feel the music.

Built from the ground-up, the building respects the context of the immediate neighborhood. Its orange Norman brick complements the nearby storefronts and its shape references that of the main building, an Art Deco-era former public library. While larger than its immediate neighbors, the building is scaled to fit into and complement the fabric of the larger neighborhood. Chicago Tribune critic Blair Kamin found that the building “successfully brings Old Town’s casual vibe into the 21st century” in his review.

The building literally beckons us in, in multiple languages. Sculpted messages on colored concrete panels on the exterior by Margaret Ketcham say “music” in languages from hieroglyphics to Chinese.

Once inside, there are places on the stairs, in the corners and along the corridors where people gather and jam. The front room concerns itself with the social and cultural aspect of music and the institution’s connection to the neighborhood. One can sit on the oversized stairs and play music. Corridors are outfitted with acoustically controlled spaces where inspired musicians can practice a solo or collaborate. The main lobby has acoustically controlled spots for jamming that won’t disturb the transactions at the front desk.

The design also incorporates funky, personalized touches. Reproductions of cartoonist R. Crumb’s portraits of American blues and folk greats line the stairwell, there’s craft beer service on the second floor and even shimmering flecks of recycled beer bottles in the building’s terrazzo floors. Beer and folk music make a perfect match, naturally.

While the jamming spaces are great, this is a school after all. The design goes to great lengths to produce spaces that sound good for flamenco dancing, banjo lessons or even full rock bands. We employed an array of techniques to create the ultimate acoustically supportive environment.

Fundamentally, the building has been designed so that unwanted, disruptive sound and vibration are not transmitted into classrooms or performance spaces. To make this possible, the building features a kind of steel box construction which allows rooms and floors to float within. Simply put, it is an arrangement of boxes within boxes.

The steel construction of the Myron R. Szold Music and Dance Hall, likewise, is uninterrupted by supporting columns and
isolated from the dance studios above. Essentially, three boxes sit over one box and all four are isolated from the main building structure. The floating concrete slabs for each box are designed in such a way that they impart no kinetic energy from the dance studio into the structural system of the building. They float at the edges and on the bottom.

These design solutions combine to make the East Building a beautiful, inviting presence in the community, but perhaps more importantly a beautifully functional one. The state-of-art classrooms are worthy of an institution with a unique mission, to pass on the folk cultures of music and dance.  The new space has allowed OTSoFM to accommodate 60% more students and add 150 new performances and community dance events to the annual schedule.

Chicago’s would-be Bob Dylans have never sounded so good.

A variety of features enhance acoustics and practice of music/dance instruction:

  • All of the building’s heating and cooling is done with hydronics, which don’t need to move as much air through the building, hence less noise. They save space, too.
  • Classrooms are designed without parallel walls—out of square–to avoid flutter echo. Ninety degree walls feature absorption on perpendicular surfaces, so an absorbing surface always faces a reflecting one. Performers get some room reverberation for acoustic music, but the control of back wall echo allows for remarkably clear sound.
  • The back wall of the entrance hall is an acoustically-engineered sculptural surface with windows that admit light, but not sound, into interior spaces. This “feature wall” and its combination of reflective and absorptive surfaces optimize acoustics in the stair hall, taking visual inspiration from the Schroeder Diffuser, a device which scatters sound.
  • The only movable acoustics the actual classrooms need are carpets. If you’re playing cellos or acoustic guitar, you need the hard floor, so you roll the carpet up.
  • The amplified music rooms also feature individually tuned bass traps that absorb excessive low end sounds, but keep the rooms lively. Three-foot soffits around the perimeter feature salvaged material for sound absorption.  The “boomy” quality typical of other rooms is avoided.
  • The amplified rooms are also acoustically isolated so that, as Old Town School’s Bau Graves enthuses, “You can carry on a rock and roll class at full cry and it’s not going to bother anyone in another room.”
  • The trio of dance studios host folk and ethnic dance as well as some ballet. Because of the percussive nature of dance, they don’t have parallel walls. Dance studios have sprung floors for acoustics and comfort.
  • As Bau Graves explains, music rooms are also technologically enabled. “All of the rooms are also outfitted with sound systems, some have the video systems, all wireless. They all connect into our archival database which is across the street, and currently features about 66,000 songs. If a teacher is working on a fingerstyle guitar class, he can say, ‘Let’s listen to what Mississippi John Hurt did with “Candyman” back in 1964 and here’s a live performance from 1964, which they can pull out of our archive.
  • The ground floor performance space/ studio has some adjustable acoustics in the form of heavy drapes that can be moved in and out of position depending on the event and floor rugs. Acoustically isolated from the dance studios above, it can host a quiet performance while clog dancing is going on above. It hosts weekly ethnic dance parties.
  • The audio system in the main performance hall is configurable allowing different room uses and orientations.  A ‘performance system’ is provided for concerts and other presentations on the stage, while a second system is provided for open-floor arrangements such as dance and acting classes.
  • The performance hall audio system can be operated in a ‘performance-mode’ by technicians for concerts or other complex events, or in a day-to-day ‘classroom-mode’ allowing instructors to easily utilize the systems for teaching throughout the day.
  • The public spaces are allowed to be a little noisier. Some noise from the classrooms is allowed into the corridor through doors. The combination of two doors provides total isolation so you don’t get noise from classroom A to classroom B, but you do get a little bit of sound from each to the corridor. That provides a certain vibe to the space, so you are aware that there is music going on, but not overtly.
  • One leftover screw or two-by-four between walls can transmit sound. Framers and drywall contractors were specially instructed on the importance of acoustic isolation in their work resulting in a structure as carefully built as it was detailed.

Great spaces for sound and dancing don’t just enrich Chicago culture, they also boost it economically.  The new building adds to Old Town’s “arts multiplier” effect, which puts $11 million in the local economy annually and support 800 permanent jobs, making the East Building a very sound investment.

Size: 27,000sf
Team members: Bill Ketcham, Erin Besler, Jason Cofer, Clint Moewe

Photos by Thomas Rossiter

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