In May 2000, the city of Tempe, Arizona (just to the east of Phoenix) passed Proposition 400, dedicating a one-tenth percent sales tax to the development, construction, and operation of a center for the arts. Tempe had entered a new phase in its history and wanted an architectural and cultural centerpiece that reflected the history and unique landscape of the region.

Seven years later, the result is the uniquely southwestern Tempe Center for the Arts (TCA), designed by architects Barton Myers and Associates with local Tempe partner firm Architekton and theatrical systems by Theatre Projects Consultants. The 88,000sq-ft. facility incorporates a 600-seat theatre, a 200-seat flexible studio space, a 3,500sq-ft. gallery, a 17-acre art park and, symbolically, 1,000 years of southwestern culture and history.

One of the two principal architectural inspirations for the TCA was the ancient village of Pueblo Bonito, a “Great House” constructed by the ancestral Pueblo people. Occupied between 828 and 1126 AD in the Chaco Canyon of northern New Mexico, Pueblo Bonito is the largest and best known architectural remainder of its period. All structures within the village are surrounded by a nearly perfect semicircular exterior wall, sliced on one side by a straight line parallel to the river.

Architect Barton Myers, with partner John Kane of Architekton, seized upon this geometry when conceptualizing the Tempe Center. The site chosen for the Center was adjacent to Tempe Town Lake, essentially a widened section of the Salt River created by a local system of dams and locks. The specific footprint of the TCA would eventually describe a perfect mirror image of the Pueblo Bonito, facing north toward its river instead of south.

The layout of structures within an outer wall is only half of the solution to the Center's greatest challenges. The venue is very close to Sky Harbor Airport, directly on the eastern approach path. Though not the largest airport, it is the busiest for its size in the US; a plane flies low over the Center approximately every minute-and-a-half during peak periods. To help reduce the airport's effect, the architects took the enclosing wall concept to the next level by adding a sculptural metal roof, another tribute to the TCA's geographical surroundings. Depending on the direction from which you approach the Center, the roof peaks create reflections in miniature of Hayden Butte, the small mountain at the center of the Arizona State University campus, or South Mountain, which roughly marks the southern end of the Phoenix metropolitan area.

Joe Salvatore, a partner with Architekton, says, “The desire was to have the building reflect its surroundings in as many ways as possible, down to the detail work. You'll notice that, if you look closely at the roof, its texture and shape are in some ways a direct reproduction of some of the lower strata of Hayden Butte.” The faceted surface of the roof also draws inspiration from the F-117 Nighthawk stealth fighter; the angular construction helps to shed sound waves in much the same way the fighter's surfaces treat radar.

Inside the enclosing wall and roof, all of the spaces within the Center exist as buildings within a building. The theatre, studio, gallery, and meeting spaces all have their own exterior walls and roofs within the larger structure, to which they are connected by only a few acoustically-isolated points. This also creates an interesting effect for visitors: the resulting design of the lobby calls to mind a strange but pleasing mixture of small town Main Street and Times Square. With a southwestern sunset streaming through the giant window wall facing the river, attending a show in the theatre while there are simultaneous events going on feels utopian, a somewhat paradoxical mixture of elegance and small-town simplicity.

MAIN THEATRE SPACE

The 600-seat main performance space is the heart of the TCA. Lavishly appointed in copper and mahogany, the theatre is sheltered by an enormous web-like dome of mahogany and concrete, cast in place as a single piece. The interior is warm in aspect and comfortable.

One of the most interesting aspects of the main theatre is the climate control. HVAC and climate control are challenges for the entire facility due to the buildings-within-building structure. For noise reasons, the HVAC units are located outside the building, and cooled air is pumped into the building through underground channels. In the main theatre, this system terminates in a plenum underneath the seating levels, which is accessed by a small register, or vent, under each seat. A high volume of air flows out of these registers at a very low pressure before exiting through returns located up near the spot booth. This reversal of the usual top-down flow creates a nearly silent system with very high efficiency.

This quiet cooling system and the building's acoustical isolation are especially important in this space, as it has to serve such a diverse resident clientele, including two theatre companies, two dance companies, a chorus, and several symphonic organizations. To accommodate these, the main theatre was designed as a “drama space that also does music,” a transformation accomplished by the inclusion of an electroacoustic enhancement system designed and implemented by Arup Acoustics with processing equipment by Lares. Using this system, the space can essentially be “reprogrammed” to mimic the acoustic environment of a large concert hall, with more than 100 loudspeakers emitting the reverberation signatures of a much larger room. By means of a simple touchpad, the operating staff can call up a variety of virtual room types, depending on the stage and shell configuration as well as the desired result.

“Almost as a joke, we included a cathedral setting that uses a seven or eight second reverberation period,” says Kurt Graffy of Arup Acoustics. “You could never use it for practical purposes because the discord between what your ears would hear and what your eyes would see would be upsetting, but if you close your eyes, it really feels like you are in a cathedral.”

STUDIO THEATRE SPACE

The 200-seat studio theatre is about as different from the main theatre space as can be imagined, with dramatic results. Decked out in blue and silver, this flexible space can be easily shifted from thrust to arena to end-of-stage, proscenium-style configurations, largely by means of an innovative NIVOflex Airstage staging system. In this case, however, the staging system is actually a seating system: the floor area of two-thirds of the room can easily be adjusted for height, enabling the easy creation of graded audience seating levels. NIVOflex Airstage is designed and manufactured by Bühnenbau Schnakenberg, a German firm distributed in the US by Steeldeck, who debuted the system for the first time in the US at LDI 1998 in Phoenix. The operations staff of the facility is full of praise for the system, as the easy raising and lowering mechanisms of the 4'×8' sections save them countless hours of maneuvering risers (see p. 48 for Studio Theatre gear list).

Though not as challenging as the main theatre space acoustically, the reconfigurable nature of the room did require some creative solutions. In the thrust and arena configurations, the narrow dimension of the room would cause too much reflection off the side walls, hindering comprehension of the spoken word. To combat this, Theatre Projects specified a Texas Scenic installation of acoustical banners, double thicknesses of velour that can be raised and lowered in front of the side walls in an almost accordion-like fashion.

“Texas Scenic pulled off a real trick with the banners,” says Millie Dixon, the lead on the project for Theatre Projects Consultants. “The width of the room is very, very tight. They worked very hard to fit into a very small space.”

BACKSTAGE SPACES

One of the most remarkable features of the Center's plan is the character of the backstage spaces. The hallways and working spaces are light and airy, full of natural light. Almost all of the offices and dressing rooms also have at least some natural light, often passing through glazed openings in the ceiling of the rooms themselves after passing through apertures in the roof. The layout of the hallways and docks is exceedingly well planned for access to each of the theatre spaces and the gallery. There are pass-throughs, patch bays, and cable tracks seemingly everywhere.

Though this ease of use is aided somewhat by the buildings-within-building structure, it turns out to have been imperative almost from moment one, which is somewhat unusual for a large-scale, publicly funded arts center. The city of Tempe had many of the operational staff in place at the beginning of the design process, often actively employed at other venues. “The clients were extremely clear about what they wanted,” says Dixon. “City staff were brought onboard very early in the process to say, ‘This is how I want to work in this building.’”

ENVIRONMENTAL CONSIDERATION

It is impossible to consider any architectural space today without discussing its impact on the environment. Though the Tempe Center for the Arts began its design process a few years before the current age of “green buildings” and has, at least to this point, opted out of the LEED certification process, the building's acoustical challenges led to some design solutions that also happily improved its carbon footprint. All the windows in the exterior wall are triple-glazed (three thicknesses of glass) to minimize noise while also reducing heat. The buildings-within-building structure helps to minimize heat load on the interior structures and shades the structural walls of the theatre spaces, keeping them from re-radiating the Arizona heat during the early evening hours while performances are going on. The underground HVAC system prevents heat loss from the cool air as it moves from blower to space.

The team at Barton Myers and Architekton are also strong believers in regionalism and sustainable building materials. The concrete, copper, and CMUs (concrete masonry units) were all mined and manufactured in Arizona. All the wood in the building was harvested from sustainably-managed, certified forests. The building was even built on a landfill site, and the team worked first to clean up the site and reengineer the fill, which is especially important in its lakeside location due to concerns about groundwater and runoff.

The Tempe Center for the Arts finds its greatest strength in location. It is a tribute to all that surrounds it: history, geography, culture, and environment. Its uniquely protective and pleasant environment is evident to both audience and employee. In the case of publicly funded arts centers, it is that rare example of architectural symbol and working cultural centerpiece.

TEMPE CENTER FOR THE ARTS

THEATRE EQUIPMENT LIST

LIGHTING

Lighting Console: ETC Expression 3 Emphasis

Dimmers: 450 2.4kW ETC Sensor Dimmers

Company Switch: 400A Three-Phase

Instruments

5 ETC Source Four 5° Ellipsoidal

15 ETC Source Four 10° Ellipsoidal

40 ETC Source Four 19° Ellipsoidal

70 ETC Source Four 26° Ellipsoidal

60 ETC Source Four 36° Ellipsoidal

10 ETC Source Four 50° Ellipsoidal

40 ETC Source Four PAR

16 Altman Lighting Focusing Cyc 4-Circuit Cyc Light

2 Strong Super Trouper Followspot

Accessories
(Shared with the Studio)

80 6“ Top Hats PARs

340 6“ Top Hats Source Fours

425 A-Size Pattern Holders

21 7.5“ Color Scroller

4 6-Way Power Supply

52 24“ Sidearms w/2 sliding Tee

30 12“ Sidearms w/1 sliding Tee

20 Iris Kits (Source Four)

8 50lb Boom Base

12'×1.5“ Boom Pipe

18 Scenery Bumpers

DRAPERIES

Main Curtain: Deep Purple Velour (travels and guillotines)

All other curtains are black velour and sewn flat

Border: 1 panel 59'W×15'H

Borders: 5 panels 59''W×10'H

Legs: 10 panels 16'6“W×32'H

Traveler: 2 panels 34'W×32'H

Side Tabs: 6 panels 12W×30'H

Scrim (Black Sharkstooth): 1 panel 59'W × 29'H

Cyclorama (White filled Leno): 1 panel 50'W × 29'H

SOUND EQUIPMENT

House Speaker System

Main Cluster: 6 Renkus-Heinz STX 9

Stage Lip: 12 Renkus-Heinz TRX 61

Sub Woofers: 2 Community SBS45

Stage monitors: 2 EAW SM129 12“ 2 EAW SM159 15“

LARES Electroacoustic Enhancement System

Console

1 Soundcraft MH4 48-channel
8 group sends
8 Aux sends
19×8 matrix

Processors and Playback

DSP main frame processor: 1 Biamp Audia Flex

Parametric EQ: 1 Rane PEQ 55

Graphic EQ: 2 Yamaha Q2031B

Reverb: 1 Yamaha Rev100

Signal processor: 2 Yamaha SPX2000

Quad Compressor: 2 Klark-Teknik DN504

CD/Cassette: 2 Tascam CD-A500 w/ RC-90

CD/Cassette Recorder: 1 Tascam

CC-222 w/RC-90

Microphones

Vocal: 4 SM 58 Beta

Wireless: 8 Shure ULXP124/85

Instrument: 1 Matched Stereo Pair Rode NT5

1 AKG Perception 150

5 Sure SM81

2 Behringer ECM 8000

3 Shure SM 57

1 Shure Beta 52

Intercom

Clear-Com 4-Channel Station

Clear-Com Beltpacks and Headsets: 8 Complete Units

TEMPE CENTER FOR THE ARTS

STUDIO EQUIPMENT LIST

LIGHTING

Lighting Console: ETC Expression 3 Emphasis

Dimmers: 240 2.4kW ETC Sensor Dimmers

Company Switch: 400A 3 Phase

Instruments

10 ETC Source Four 19° Ellipsoidal

30 ETC Source Four 26° Ellipsoidal

60 ETC Source Four 36° Ellipsoidal

40 ETC Source Four 50° Ellipsoidal

40 ETC Source Four PAR

10 Altman Lighting Focusing Cyc 4-Circuit Cyc Light

Accessories (See Theatre Equipment List)

DRAPERIES

All other curtains are black velour and sewn flat

Border: 2 panels 51'W × 5'H

Borders: 2 panels 51'W × 9'H

Legs: 8 panels 12'W × 21'H

Traveler: 4 panels 25'W × 21'H

Side Tabs: 4 panels 16'6“W × 21'H

Scrim (Black Sharkstooth): 1 panel 1 panel 51'W × 21'H

Cyclorama (White filled Leno): 1 panel 1 panel 51'W × 21'H

SOUND EQUIPMENT

House Speaker System

Main speakers: 6 Frazier Cat 499 (ceiling mounted)

Stage monitors: 2 EAW SM129 12“

2 - EAW SM159 15“

Console 1 Soundcraft K1-24 (24 channels)

4 group sends

6 Aux sends

Processors and Playback

System processor 1 Biamp Audia Flex

Parametric EQ: 1 Rane PEQ 55

Graphic EQ: 2 Yamaha Q2031B

Reverb: 1 Yamaha Rev100

Signal processor: 1 Yamaha SPX2000

Quad Compressor: 1 Klark-Teknik DN504

CD/Cassette: 1 Tascam CD-A500 w/RC-90

CD/Cassette Recorder: 2 Tascam CC-222 w/RC-90

AM/FM tuner: 1 Contemporary Research 232-FMA

Microphones

Vocal: 4 SM 58

Wireless: 4 Shure ULXP124/85

Handheld/Lavaliere

Microphone Stands: 4 Floor Stands w/Boom Attachments

Intercom

Clear-Com 4 Channel Station

Clear-Com Beltpacks and Headsets: 6 Complete Units