CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — For centuries, barn raisings have brought neighbors together to build structures to help families prosper and to celebrate the fruits of their communal labor once the last rafter is hoisted into place. This Friday (Dec. 10), the department of dance and the School of Architecture, both in the College of Fine and Applied Arts at the University of Illinois, will celebrate the grand opening of the Graduate Dance Center, a 5,000-square-foot facility for dance research that was realized through the collaborative efforts of student and faculty volunteers and donated materials from an Iowa barn and a campus basketball court.
Built in 1905 as an agronomy seed laboratory, the two-story brick building was turned into a forestry laboratory in the late 1960s before the unit then known as the School of Art took it over in 1984, converting it into print shops and workrooms. | Photo by Wallo Villacorta Photography
U. of I. students, faculty and staff members have spent more than two years planning, designing and building the center, transforming a cluttered artists’ workshop in an outmoded building on the south quad into an elegant rehearsal space for emerging artists and creators in the dance and architecture programs. Located on the second floor of the former East Art Annex 2 at 1301 S. Goodwin Ave., Urbana, the two studios in the center are providing desperately needed space for graduate students in dance to do research.
“The graduate program had a big boost with the hiring of several new faculty members in the past five years, so we are attracting these graduate students who are exciting, but they need a place to work,” said Jan Erkert, the head of the dance department. “We have beautiful studio spaces and enough space for classes, but for dancers the research is done in the studio, and we needed more space.”
Built in 1905 as an agronomy seed laboratory, the two-story brick building was turned into a forestry laboratory in the late 1960s before the unit then known as the School of Art took it over in 1984, converting it into print shops and workrooms. When computer technology rendered the print shops obsolete, the School of Architecture inherited the building, allowing students to use it intermittently for working on class projects.
Intended for storage when it was built, the building lacked modern amenities such as bathrooms, and its electrical system was a haphazard array of lines that reflected its transitory functionality and occupancy over the years.
“This was a building that was on the tear-down list,” Erkert said. “It was an old dilapidated building that nobody was putting any resources into because it wasn’t being used.
“When I first went to look at it, it was a mess,” Erkert said. “But at the same time, I knew that a new building was not going to happen within the next 10 years. I thought, ‘Well, this would help get us through the next decade and give us space for these graduate students’ – because if I didn’t do it, we would lose the students.”
But the cost estimates for converting the outdated space into modern dance studios were “in the hundreds of thousands of dollars” – far beyond the dance department’s budget, which, like other campus units’, was stretched thin by a series of cutbacks in recent years. Casting about for a way to get the studio space built on a shoestring budget, Erkert, at the suggestion of FAA Associate Dean James Anderson, met with two new School of Architecture faculty members, Roger Hubeli and Julie Larsen, whose expertise is sustainable construction.
Hubeli and Larsen saw an opportunity for a living-learning laboratory in which architecture students would collaborate with dance students and faculty members to transform the facility into a vibrant example of sustainable rehabilitation. With a $12,000 seed grant from the Campus Research Board, Hubeli and Larsen hired a graduate assistant, and through word of mouth and e-mail, recruited architecture students for an independent study project designing the first of two dance studios from recycled wood.
Hubeli and Larsen obtained the materials for Studio 1 when they happened to stumble upon workers removing the floor of a basketball court during the recent remodeling of the Activities and Recreation Center on campus.
In interdisciplinary forums and movement workshops, architecture and dance students explored environmentally responsible techniques, and efficient usage of space and energy. As part of the design process, dance professor Jennifer Monson conducted studies with the architecture students, so they could experience the space from a dancer’s perspective.
“It’s really quite fascinating for the students to do work for other students,” Hubeli said. “It’s important that two disciplines really grounded in their own fields did something together and saw how it played out. It was very nice to see our architecture students working with the dance students creating something that the dance students would use afterward.”
The first studio, a 2,000-square-foot space with floating curtains and a sprung floor fabricated from the recycled basketball court, opened in fall 2009. The Student Sustainability Committee, which funds green projects on campus through a student-paid technology fee, then became interested in the project and approved a $57,000 grant this year to fund the second phase. Studio 2 includes a larger rehearsal space with a sprung wood floor constructed from materials donated by alumni John and Vivian Diserio. The materials were from a barn they had demolished on their Iowa farm.
“It would have been so much easier to buy a sustainable product like a bamboo floor and install it,” Erkert said. “It would have saved thousands of man hours. It felt like a real life lesson in all the work that it takes to make sustainability happen. There was this profound learning curve of people doing the work and realizing how much work it takes. You have to live it to really be behind it. That was a nice feeling.”
Both studios are designed so that when the day comes that the dance department secures the necessary funding – which probably would be in the millions of dollars – for an intensive structural redesign of the building, the components such as the sprung floors can be dismantled and reinstalled, recycling the materials yet another time.
Students, the motivation for the rehearsal studios, also were instrumental in making them attainable, and they, alongside faculty members, spent hundreds of volunteer hours building walls, drilling holes, sanding wood and laying the sprung floors.
“What’s really quite amazing is that this semester we forewent offering academic credit and opened the project up for students to just come and volunteer – and we ended up with an overwhelming response,” Larsen said. “Students are just so eager to learn and try new things and be part of it. And it’s a great thing to put in their portfolios.”
Aside from what the dance and architecture students have learned about their and their peers’ crafts and sustainability through the project, the most compelling lessons may be ones about inventive problem solving and the power of community.
“I think it’s a fabulous project that says something about the campus,” Erkert said. “In these harder budgetary times, departments are coming together and finding innovative ways to meet their needs and doing it by actively involving students. I looked around the studios and thought, ‘Wow! The students funded, designed and built them. It’s so cool!’ Dance now has this additional 5,000 square feet that is going to be a huge gain for our program. And it wouldn’t have been accomplished in this budgetary climate unless we turned to a different way of functioning.”
The studios still have deficiencies that need to be addressed to make them energy-efficient – the windows need replaced to eliminate drafts, the roof leaks when it rains, the walls and attic lack adequate insulation, and the steam heating system cannot be properly regulated to maintain a comfortable temperature, Larsen said.
Thus, the grand opening event on Dec. 10 is not only an unveiling of what’s been accomplished so far, it’s also an effort to entice potential donors to help fund the remainder of the work.
Additional support for the project was provided by the College of Fine and Applied Arts, Facilities and Services, the Research Board, the School of Architecture and private donors.
Videos about the construction of the Graduate Dance Center, which include interviews with Erkert, Hubeli and Larsen, are available on the department of dance website.