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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.

Of course, there is the universal yank on the reins of foresight known as budget. Americans are notoriously penny wise and pound foolish. They would rather spend (say) $50 on prisons than $1 on schools. This is very clear to me after living in Switzerland. You can fault the Swiss for all kinds of small-mindedness, but education is not one of them. They know that children are the future, so they pour top dollar into education. Teachers have high status in society and are very well-paid (I did ok as an orchestra musician, but I would have loved to have been paid as much as a school teacher). There are lots of PhDs teaching middle school. So they get very smart folks teaching their kids. Buildings and facilities are likewise excellent; many a junior high looks like a college campus, complete with works of art – sculpture, paintings, etc. Have you ever seen an American elementary school that wasn’t made of cinder block? Americans in general seem to continually test what the least they can spend on education and still call it education. Or try out such brilliant plans as demanding higher standards without offering any help, just penalties if you don’t. The beatings will continue until morale improves. All right, I’ll get back to the subject. Budget constraints are pretty universal, and what happens is the world changes and programs grow and change, and then change is forced on the system at a vastly higher cost than if they had done it right in the first place. My alma mater is one case in point: St Olaf College has a long tradition of terrific music – band, choral, orchestral. A third of the student body does some kind of music, and a lot of it is very high level. While I was there, they were still making do with old facilities – I spent many hours practicing in the Music Annex, a “temporary” WWI shack. Finally, they put up a new music building. Alleluia. A place like this – high standards, long tradition – will surely do it right. But it was outdated the day it was dedicated. What was there was beautiful. But it was – and is – too small. Not built for any kind of future expansion, barely built for the needs of the present. The budget monster devours sense and sensibility, even in an arts bastion like St. O.

It might be different at Iowa. FEMA will be helping us beat the budget boogieman (in exchange for being on high ground). There are high level minds at work on planning the building of the future, and they will be working with architects and others to come up with something great. Now and then they solicit input from those of us farther down the food chain. Now Dave has asked me. And now I’m asking you. What should be in the building? How do we make a building that can adapt and incorporate the new technologies in the new world of the future? It will be different from the world of today, of that there is no doubt. Just look at all the changes that have taken place in only the past decade. The world lives online. Email is ubiquitous, and web mail programs (like Gmail) have become very slick and transparent. You can see examples and samples of practically everything/anything on YouTube. Or Podcasts. Texting barely existed a decade ago and now the average high schooler sends thousands of them a month. It’s relatively easy to create digitally your own movies. With your own soundtrack. And special-effects title and scene changes. You can start your own music publishing house (using Finale or Sibelius) and set up a virtual shop on the web. You can have an audio/video chat on a 24″ computer screen with a buddy in Ulan Bator – for free, via Skype. Teachers now give music or language lessons the same way to anyone anywhere on the globe. The new generation speaks all this technology as a native tongue. My daughter did not yet have two digits in her age when I watched her set up her grandfather’s cell phone in seconds – a brand and model that she had never seen before, but which held no terrors or mysteries for her (Nothing new. I remember telling her when she was 3 – “I’m not getting you a computer until you learn the alphabet!” She was perfectly comfortable getting around with just the mouse at that age…). Technologies are now available at nominal cost to almost everyone that were either nonexistent or insanely expensive only very recently. What an age we live in.

So how does this effect the design of the music school of the future? We have to wrestle with this now, because this school is being designed as we speak in Iowa City. Last chance to prognosticate and leave the best facilities possible for future generations.

It goes without saying that this school will have to have as much of these technologies built in everywhere. Wired and wireless everything. Computers, overhead screens in classrooms. Digital recording devices built in to all studios, practice rooms, classrooms, halls (my temporary office – a Wenger unit – now has a panel in it with a digital recorder and dial-up acoustic settings, everything from dry to Astrodome).

What else?

I’ve always like the way the UI School of Business is set up: a number of small lounge areas – comfortable chairs, tables, not far from a classy cafe food service place. The new school must have a number of these  – places where people can perform informally without ado anytime. Small raised stage area, comfy chairs, tables, wired for sound, adjustable acoustics. People could eat lunch while listening to a chamber music group.

This and other space/places should have adjustable lighting possibilities. Lighting makes a huge difference in how a performance is perceived and enjoyed.

There should be a number of small studios that are outfitted with audio and video recording devices so that anyone could make a quick and dirty recording (although the way things are today, even informal recordings can be high quality) or podcast or….? For CD quality, you would still need a recording studio and technician, but for everything up to that, students don’t need an audio guru anymore to make acceptable and even very good recordings.

I have an idea that I don’t know how to apply yet, but there must be some way: I saw a video of very imaginative Hong Kong architect Gary Chang who transformed a tiny apartment (300 sq. ft) into 24 rooms (i.e. space combinations), using a “futuristic moving wall system.” Watch the video – it’s astounding. Perhaps there’s a way to use this transforming technique to get the most out of the space in the new music building.

The entrance to the music building should be a large, open, high-ceiling room with plants and artwork and a cafe and a stage and information center and lighting. It should make people smile and feel good just to walk in. It should be as easy to have a meeting/food event as an informal concert. It could even be a place – since this is downtown – that anyone from the town could walk in and enjoy the ambience and the music (another place that chamber groups can get performance experience). Planning should include ways to integrate the town into the school and the school into the town. This music school has the possibility of being a crown jewel of both the university and the town itself, bring new life and culture (and perhaps even business) to the area.

They and we just have to do our best to do it right. The first time. There will be no second chance in the lifetime of any on earth today. This is it.

So what do you think?

What should the music school of the future be like?

Let us know. Be as specific as you can. But let your mind off its leash and see what you come up with.

I’ll do the same; let’s compare notes.

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