Northwestern University's New Ryan Center Brings Harmony to Bienen

Photo by Tom RossiterPhoto by Tom Rossiter

Encased in glass and measuring approximately 155,000 square feet, Northwestern University’s $117 million Patrick G. and Shirley W. Ryan Center for the Musical Arts, the new home of the Henry and Leigh Bienen School of Music, has set sail along the Evanston lakefront.

“You can see through the exterior glass, through the lobby, and then you see Lake Michigan,” said Bienen School of Music Dean Toni-Marie Montgomery. "Many of the students are calling the building the S.S. Bienen, because it looks like a cruise ship and you can see straight through it to the water.”

Photo by Tom RossiterPhoto by Tom Rossiter

Behind the center's design is Chicago-based architectural firm Goettsch Partners, whose past projects include Lincoln Park Zoo’s Regenstein Center for Africa Apes, the renovation of the Wrigley Building and the redevelopment of Soldier Field. The modern stone-and-glass structure encompasses five stories and includes three state-of-the-art performance spaces: the 400-seat Mary B. Galvin Recital Hall, the 163-seat black box-style Shirley Welsh Ryan Opera Theater and the 120-seat David and Carol McClintock Choral and Recital Room.

The center also features classroom space, 55 soundproof practice rooms, 35 teaching studios and ample office space for faculty, services, administrators and others. On the fifth floor, administrative offices of the School of Communication and the university's theater and performance studies departments have taken up residence. 

Photo by Tom RossiterPhoto by Tom Rossiter

Named in recognition of Patrick and Shirley Ryan, longtime supporters of the arts at Northwestern and across the area, the Ryan Center partially opened its doors last March for music education classes. Bienen’s faculty and administrators began moving in last June from the department’s former Music Administration Building, which was located more than half a mile across campus. With its close proximity to the Pick-Staiger Concert Hall and direct three-level connection to the Regenstein Hall of Music, the Ryan Center now allows Beinen to consolidate all of its performance and education programs into one campus location.

“People are talking about actually running into each other," said Montgomery. "Students who were in Regenstein would have to make the trek to the Music Administration Building in the cold and the heat for their academic classes. Because we were physically separated, there was a cultural divide between the academics in music and the performers. When you really think about musicians doing what we do, which is work and play together, there wasn’t that ability to sit and talk, to exchange, to collaborate—all of that which is interdisciplinary study.”

Photo by Tom RossiterPhoto by Tom Rossiter

After expanding its James Roscoe Miller Campus in the '60s by constructing a 1,000-foot landfill east into Lake Michigan, Northwestern built Regenstein and Pick-Staiger in the '70s. When Montgomery was hired by the university in 2003, she was informed of the need for new music facilities and the idea to replace the Music Administration Building, which originated as a women’s college and dormitory in 1874 and was adopted by Bienen in 1940.

“The former women’s bedrooms were actually used by our students as practice rooms,” Montgomery said. “I have to give kudos to our faculty because, despite our physical separation between the buildings and despite the fact that the Music Administration Building was less than an ideal spot for making music and training young people, the faculty is the reason why the school has had this wonderful reputation.”

Photo by Tom RossiterPhoto by Tom Rossiter

As plans and funding for a new building began to materialize, the university conducted a feasibility study in 2004 to determine whether or not the landfill could sustain a massive new structure. Once they got the green light in 2008, the university sent proposals to 25 architectural firms. Goettsch Partners – despite inexperience with music buildings – submitted the winning bid.

“That aspirational view of Chicago was really critical," Montgomery said. "Think about the many hours that our students are practicing, hoping that they then can perform at as part of one of these major arts institutions, like the Chicago Symphony Orchestra or the Lyric Opera of Chicago."

Construction started in June 2012, and Montgomery said that she received plenty of questions about the length of the project.

“I would hear people asking, why is it taking so long to build your building? And I would say, this is not an office building," Montgomery said. “It was an interesting process. We had our list of how many practice rooms we needed, and the number of faculty offices and teaching studios for piano and voice that we needed. With Goettsch, they listen very well and I think no one would believe their lack of experience working with any types of music or arts organization because they are just amazing.”

Montgomery stressed to Goettsch the importance of ensuring that the building would sound as good as it looks.

Mary B. Galvin Recital Hall. Photo by Tom RossiterMary B. Galvin Recital Hall. Photo by Tom Rossiter

To optimize the center's acoustics, the university hired consultants Kirkegaard Associates, who had also worked on the acoustics at Pick-Staiger. Kirkegaard played a key role in the construction of the wood-walled Galvin Hall and helped bring Montgomery’s vision of a 50-foot glass wall behind Galvin’s stage to fruition. The open backdrop provides a view that transforms the space out of Evanston and into downtown Chicago.

“The recital hall is the heartbeat of the building—the centerpiece—and the ability to see the lake and to also then see that Chicago skyline was really important,” Montgomery explained. “I remember sitting in the meeting saying I would like glass at the back of the stage and the initial reaction was, "Oh no, glass has a harsh sound.’ Kirkegaard addressed it and installed two sets of glass windows and the interior glass is slanted upwards, rather than being straight up and down, to avoid having a harsh sound. Most our concerts are in the evening so I think the little twinkling of the lights from the city will actually be quite spectacular.”

Another advantage of the new building: the ability to control temperature fluctuations. Because of this development, the university purchased 200 new pianos for $1 million.

“We have been planninng on this for this for a long time,” Montgomery said. “Unfortunately, with the air and heating in the old building, keeping a steady temperature was not possible, so we didn’t want to buy a lot of pianos that would always be out of tune. In the past we would have to hire additional piano technicians just to keep all of the instruments in tune."

Now that the project is complete and the Ryan Center is fully occupied, the campus is buzzing with excitement about its new showpiece.

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“It’s a magnet that draws people. You see lots of students who are taking selfies and I think the right word would be that they’re very proud,” Montgomery said. “And previously there was a parking garage and a parking lot, so the cars had the best views.

"Just the fact that this is a new front porch to the university and the fact that the arts are supported and appreciated by a research university is a major statement," she added. "So I think that the sky is the limit now because we have this wonderful facility. It gives us inspiration, but it’s also a challenge. It’s saying, ‘Okay, now that you have this, what are you going to do next?”

The Ryan Center was formally dedicated with a private ribbon-cutting ceremony on Thursday and will officially kick off a year-long series of concerts and events with outdoor performances of John Luther Adams' "Sila: The Breath of the World" this Friday and Saturday, Sept. 25 and 26.