On an unseasonably warm February afternoon, students drift through the enclosed courtyard of the new student arts center. Like tourists inspecting a landmark, they point their fingers and twist their heads in every direction, careful not to miss a detail of the three-winged facility.
The triangular granite steps that lead upward into campus elicit a vote of "cool" from one passerby. A pair of students poke their heads into the Studio Theatre, where one day soon they will come to enjoy a play, or perhaps perform in one themselves. Many just stop and pause in the middle of the courtyard to soak the space in. Each of them smiles with the awareness of two truths.
It's here. It's theirs.
"This is the first major facility that was built almost exclusively with the students in mind, that is, for activities outside the classroom," says Ralph Johnson, associate dean of students. "I believe this arts center will enhance the whole curricular experience for students at Hopkins, particularly those who have an interest in the creative performing arts."
The wait is over; the 53,000-square-foot student arts center has begun to ripple with life now that spring term has arrived. While some construction work continues, and many boxes remain unpacked, faculty and staff have all moved in, and the center's first classes are under way.
Barbara Gruber, an instructor in the Homewood Art Workshops, had the honor of leading the very first class, an advanced painting workshop.
The day's exercise for the 11 students was a still life, a collection of breads, fruits and vegetables. Gruber says that while the students painted, the sun poked through the studio's windows and her thoughts instantly returned to the former painting studio, located in the basement of Merryman Hall.
"What a difference this new studio makes," Gruber says. "There is nothing like having light streaming in while you're painting. You adjust to the light changes and it becomes part of the work. This new center is such a beautiful space. It's just so, I don't know, painterly."
"It just feels so good to finally be in here," says Craig Hankin, director of the Homewood Art Workshops. "I have a permanent smile on my face."
The student arts center, which will be officially dedicated in April, is actually a three-part complex: the west wing and Studio Theatre, which comprise the Morris W. Offit Building; and the east wing, or Ross Jones Building.
The Morris W. Offit Building, named for the trustee and former board chairman, contains the Digital Media Center, a dance studio, three meeting rooms and the offices of Student Life, Multicultural Student Affairs and Homewood Arts Programs.
The Digital Media Center, equipped with high-end computing and editing equipment, is a place where students will come to design their own Web pages, edit film and videos or perhaps compose a digital music opus. The center will contain an audio suite, video suite and the latest in computer hardware and software. Joan Freedman, director of the Digital Media Center, says the center is a nonacademic program that emphasizes experimentation and fun.
"This Digital Media Center represents a huge opportunity for the students to express themselves creatively and to learn what technology has to offer," Freedman says. "Aside from the nuts and bolts of how to use the software, or do things like create sound effects, they are learning what is possible in the merging of art and technology."
Freedman says all the center's equipment is currently on order, but she expects the center to be up and running in a few weeks. She adds that the center will have two professional staff on hand to assist those who use the center, and she is actively searching for students to staff the facility.
Named after vice president and secretary emeritus Ross Jones, the east wing of the student arts center is the new home for the Homewood Art Workshops and a host of student groups. The building contains 10 music practice rooms, two darkrooms, meeting rooms, student office space, two art studios and two rehearsal spaces.
The smaller rehearsal space is designed for chamber and a cappella groups, jazz combos and the like, while the larger space, the Second Decade Society Room, is generous enough in size to house an entire orchestra.
The student groups that will occupy the building's north wing include Model United Nations, Inter-Asian Council, MSE Symposium, the Barnstormers, Symposium on Foreign Affairs, Greek Council and Spring Fair. Each group was given cubicles, rather than separate offices, so as to foster collaboration.
Vadim Schick, chair of the Student Activities Commission, says he is excited to see all these groups now housed together.
"I think it's a great space, and it was a great idea to have this common area," says Schick, a senior majoring in history and Russian literature. "These groups are no longer secluded in their offices, and it will be interesting to see what everyone is working on."
Schick is one of several students who played a role in the planning of the student arts center. He attended meetings with architects, toured the site during construction and even was there when furniture was being bought.
"The administration asked for a lot of input from the student body on this project," Schick says.
Mary Ellen Porter, director of special projects for Homewood Student Affairs, says no one building exemplifies this collaboration with students more than the Studio Theatre. Groups such as the Barnstormers, the student-run theater organization, were consulted frequently when the building was in its design stages, Porter says.
Once completed, the space will contain a 250-person-capacity black box theater, cyber cafe, dressing rooms, a scene shop, storage space for props and a green room.
"These are all facilities they didn't have before," says Porter, who coordinated the move to the student arts center. "The black box theater is a great addition to this campus. The students can hang lights anywhere they want above the wire grid, and there is a tech booth inside where students can talk to people backstage. This is a truly professional space where students only have their imaginations to limit themselves."
Porter says the existence of this new theater, and the center's prominent location, should increase the visibility of Homewood's arts performances.
"We are hoping with this student arts center that the community will feel more a part of this campus," Porter says.
Eric Beatty, director of the Homewood Arts Programs, says he believes that will be the case.
"Since we are right here off Charles Street, I'm certain we will develop more of a connection with residents as they will come out to see our performances," Beatty says. "This center represents a central venue for arts on this campus, and people will be able to come here and find out about all our upcoming shows, whether they are here, Shriver Hall or elsewhere on campus."
Nestled within the building segments is the courtyard, which will contain tables, chairs and a landscaped band with grass, Japanese maple trees and a bronze-panel sculpture on which water will cascade. The plans call for more than 100 new plants and trees to enhance the site.
The arts center was designed by Tod Williams, Billie Tsien and Associates of New York. The architecture of the building is sleek and modern, with ample use of brick and glass on the exterior and concrete masonry, polished blocks, colored tiles and smooth surfaces on the interior.
Each of the wings is outfitted with ramps, staircases and building-length terraces.
"It is all designed to flow and promote interaction among the students," Porter says. "This will be a hub of student activity."
Porter says the experience of working on this new facility has been "unbelievable." She says part of her can't believe the doors are finally open.
"There is just so much to look forward to," she says. "I'm personally looking forward to eating in the cafe and going to a show. I can't wait to see the student art displays. Then there is the Digital Media Center. I mean, this whole facility is going to add so much to life on this campus."