I had a serendipitous lunch the other day with the head of our music school, David Gier. The burrito shack where we were dining is famed for turning out excellent fare in a trice, which was good since there wasn’t much time before the next class. So Dave got right to the point: What do I think the new music building should be like?
The University of Iowa School of Music building was damaged beyond repair in the 500-year flood of 2008. We are presently ensconced in delightful new quarters, built to order for us in a downtown enclosed mall (the second story is all university offices) – much better than the old building, I think, but temporary nevertheless. A brand new state-of-the-art music building is now in the beginning planning stages and will be built in a great downtown (Iowa City) location only a block from where we are now.
In answer to Dave’s question I started freeforming about how music education needed some fundamental reforms about how things are done and what’s important and blah blah. And he say, “No, no. That’s music curriculum. I want to know what features the building itself should have. The building will be standing long after we are gone; we have to design it to meet the needs of future music students, whose world may be quite different from ours. We can’t know everything, but we have to take some educated guesses and make the building as adaptable to future needs as possible.”
When the old music building was built in the late 60’s, it was built with the mindset of that time. The old building was a concrete edifice that had the approximate warmth and humanity of a medieval dungeon. No welcoming or lounge area. No food service (vendo-land doesn’t count). No faculty lounge; barely a student lounge. No skylights or views of the truly beautiful surroundings (river, trees, sky) – it was all concrete. Windows (I did have a great view of the river from my office) were thick and not openable. The walls and floors were dull gray. It was all utility, no heart or warmth (until not long before the flood, when they started putting up artwork on the walls and beautiful artsy steel/wood benches in the hallways. Too little, too late). The late ’60s were a time when people were afraid of students (remember the anti-war protests? Of course not – you were too young). So they built the music school like a fortress; probably not consciously, but there it was. Other schools of music and other buildings that went up in this era in other places around the country also had variations on this “fear design.” The designers built for the present, and any building that is built like that is obsolete the day it goes into service. This was before personal computers and the internet (not to mention all kinds of audio and video technology), so none of that was built in; it was all added later, awkwardly, at great expense. You can’t blame them for not predicting the future, but it’s a bit easier to blame them for not trying a little harder.