Carleton College has a dynamic new home for its music students and faculty

By Joel Hoekstra

Carleton College, a liberal arts school with roughly 2,000 students, lies on the northern edge of Northfield, a small town in southern Minnesota. Expanding the campus, which is hemmed in by the Cannon River and a woodland-prairie arboretum, has often proved challenging. Residents are generally wary of projects that push into town, concerned that institutional buildings will alter the feel of Northfield’s historic residential neighborhoods.

But in 2011, Carleton opened the Weitz Center for Creativity, a multipurpose arts facility by MSR Design, in a former middle school surrounded by a church, a city park, and charming older homes. The award-winning adaptive reuse, plus the addition of a new wing, was heralded as a success by nearly everyone. Home to the college’s multidisciplinary arts departments, the Weitz Center ignited interest in dance, theater, and media and film studies.

The project fell short in only one respect: Despite considerable effort, the budget and programming ultimately did not allow for the inclusion of Carleton’s music department, which desperately needed a new home. (The program’s resources were divided among three locations.) Plans to unify the music department in one location were set aside.

But not for long. Six years later, Carleton opened the Weitz Center’s Music and Performance Commons, a 55,000-square-foot addition with more than enough space to house music faculty, classrooms, practice rooms, and performance spaces. Designed by HGA Architects and Engineers, the expansion integrates seamlessly with the rest of the building, fulfilling the college’s goal of cultivating collaborations among music students and faculty and their counterparts in other arts programs.

“The premise is that the arts are a powerful toolfor fostering creative educational exploration,” says Steve Richardson, Carleton’s Puzak Family Director of the Arts. “The possibilities for developing new forms of art and pushing the bounds of art are unlimited in the expanded facility.”

The 400-seat Kracum Performance Hall, the centerpiece of the addition, was designed to accommodate a full range of events, from dance recitals to lectures, from drumming groups to chamber symphonies. Pivoting wood panels surround the stage, allowing users to change the look and feel of the hall and accommodate stage entrances for dance. The back wall of the stage includes a section of integrated acoustic towers that can be rolled forward to create a smaller space for intimate performances. Adjustable LED lighting can transform the space in seconds, from somber to celebratory, dark to brilliant.

“There’s also a floor-to-ceiling drop-down screen for multimedia projection, expanding the use of the space for a variety of performance types,” says HGA project manager Rebecca Celis, AIA. The theatrical lighting, pivoting walls, and world-class acoustics add up to a dynamic space.

“The biggest challenge was weaving all the functions into the building on such a tight site,” says HGA principal Roxanne Nelson, AIA. “It took planning, stacking, and creative thinking.” A large rehearsal hall, for example, doubles as the backstage for the concert hall. A smaller rehearsal hall can be used as a master classroom or a performance space for small ensembles.

Another major challenge was fitting the building into the scale of the neighborhood. To moderate its impact, HGA clad the addition in red brick and limestone that draw from the 1910 middle school, and the highest points of the building are set back from the street, so the structure doesn’t overwhelm the neighborhood. “We kept asking, ‘How far can we push the form of this building while still maintaining the integrity of the complex?’” says HGA’s Andrew Weyenberg, AIA, the lead designer on the project.

Students, faculty, and the Northfield community have responded positively to the building. The gallery spaces, recital rooms, and concert hall are solidly booked with student works, faculty recitals, and guest performances. In that regard, says Richardson, the building is working exactly as envisioned. “Demand for all the spaces is off the charts,” he adds. “I think we’re just beginning to understand all the possible permutations for a building like this.”

“The performance hall has these beautiful, perforated-wood acoustic screens with integrated lighting, all very tightly detailed. The screens create a texture and a depth of surface that relates to the carved window compositions on the brick exterior. That resonance between the volume of the building and the inner lining of the auditorium is very powerful.”
—Kim Yao, AIA

Location: Northfield, Minnesota
Client: Carleton College
Architect and landscape architect: HGA Architects and Engineers
Principal-in-charge: Roxanne Nelson, AIA
Design team: Tim Carl, FAIA; Andrew Weyenberg, AIA; Rebecca Celis, AIA; Rebecca Krull Kraling, AIA; Andrew Holmgren, AIA
Energy modeling:  HGA; The Weidt Group
General contractor: McGough Construction
Size: 55,000 square feet
Cost: $28 million
Completion: August 2017
Photographer: Albert Vecerka