Recently refurbished 1,500 seat Costa Hall Geelong auditorium is used by both Deakin University and Geelong Arts Centre.
By Tammy Beck and Amanda Meiklejohn, Williams Ross Architects
The slow demise of large-format lecture theatres in higher education, hastened by online learning, has been accelerated with the current pandemic. Many tertiary institutions believe in-person mass-lectures are a thing of the past. Campus design has shifted — creating more social learning spaces that students enjoy being in, fostering deep-learning experiences and greater human-connection.
Students seem to prefer the agency that online learning provides, but now more than ever, we find ourselves yearning for human connection and collective experience — to be part of a crowd, an audience member, riding that wave of collective wonder and emotion a performance or a great lecture brings.
Performing Arts presentation theatres have largely weathered the decline of large-format spaces on campus, bringing higher demand on these spaces to be adaptable as presentation theatre, recital hall, lecture and gathering spaces. It is an interesting shift, and one that has placed greater emphasis on the need to build high quality spaces that play varied roles in our university and broader community life.
A wise architect, theatre designer Virginia Ross, taught us that you can design a space that does a few things exceptionally well, but flexibility comes at a cost. Choose your shared uses wisely as the more you ask a space to do, the less-functional it becomes leading to disappointment and finger-pointing (usually at the architect!). We have learnt from three-decades designing and building theatres, how to make performance theatres flexible within a range of allied and compatible uses. This is particularly poignant for university campuses.
As highly technical (and expensive) spaces, theatres need to be as adaptable and multi-purpose as possible to attract a range of hirers. This allows universities to partner with local community groups,
clubs and organisations to share resources, stage joint productions, and provide new revenue opportunities. WRA recently designed the refurbishment of Costa Hall Geelong (above). It is a multi-purpose theatre / auditorium owned by Deakin University and used for large-scale concerts, conference meetings, lectures and graduations. The 1,500-seat multi-purpose theatre / auditorium is also used by Geelong Arts Centre to support its extensive arts programme.
Back-of-house facilities were extensively refurbished to a improve the green room, flexible rehearsal, dressing rooms and amenities for both performers and visitors. Auditorium upgrades included acoustic separation between the 350-seat lecture theatre and auditorium. These enhancements have increased the facility’s viability and use making it more attractive for a wider range of activities.
Identifying the need and range of compatible uses from performance and lectures to community functions space is the essential first step in designing for a shared space. The key to maximising use is in the design of the front and back-of-house support spaces. Loading bays with a dock levelers and change-over storage create an efficient ‘bump-in bump-out’ scenario; adaptable, conjoined dressing rooms create greatest flexibility between small and large ensembles. Something as simple as the installation of a tension-wire-grid over the performance space can save lighting and staging set-up time.
The Cube at Wodonga (below) is a great example of a flexible format theatre, owned by the local Council and used by universities in the region for graduations and theatre performances. With its retractable seating bank, covered seating pit and working theatre floor, it can quickly transform from theatre to flat floor venue, and even rearrange its performance mode at intermission. This efficiency makes the space both adaptable and attractive to users.
The need for large-audience capacity performance and presentation spaces either on or associated with university campuses is strong. Careful planning and high-quality design can ensure these spaces remain relevant through sheer demand.
The stage in action at The Cube Wodonga, VIC. The flexible floor with retractable tiered seating hosts Latrobe University graduations as well as theatre performances.