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Culture / Newsy

Inside Houston’s New $88 Million Showcase School

How HSPVA’s New Downtown Campus is Designed to Bring the Arts Together — and Be Flash Mob Friendly

BY // 10.16.18

HISD has set the stage for the students of the Kinder High School for Performing and Visual Arts with the school’s expansive new campus set to open in January. Things will be grand when they’re downtown in these brand new digs.

The sleek, innovative and minimalist campus comes in at 168,000 square feet, more than double the size of the existing high school in Montrose. You can say this education and performance space, designed by Gensler’s Houston office, will steal the scene. The architects have it down to a fine art.

The new campus will take up an entire 1.32-acre block downtown. And it should — unlike the 37-year old original campus, this one’s designed to be spacious enough for a growing number of students. The original building was constructed back when the high school for the performing arts only spanned three years, not four.

It wasn’t too easy for the building to absorb the incoming freshman classes when all that changed.

This new campus was designed for HSPVA’s 750 students, with some flexibility in case that number grows. These students run the gamut of visual and performing arts, from music to theater, writing, dance and art, and they need a pretty specific setup in order to thrive.

Think an $88.3-million project to fund the building of five performance spaces, gallery space for studio art students, dance studios, a recording studio, a ceramics studio, sound-proofed practice rooms, a print-making lab, a creative writing wing and more. The largest performance space, Denney Theater, can seat 800.

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“We’re actually going to help bring the next-level institution to their learning,” Gensler architect Terry Newell tells PaperCity.

To satisfy creative types, you’ve got to think creatively. And that’s just what Newell did.

“A lot of the finishes are kind of raw and modern,” the architect says. “Polished concrete, blank white walls, simple finishes. And a lot of that is to allow the students to express themselves.”

Newell calls the five-story, vertical building a living canvas, a blank palette.

“What we enjoyed about that was allowing the students to treat their own space as a studio and make it their own,” he says.

The Denney Theater is the heart of the new campus, holding roughly 20 performances each academic year. The theater itself pays homage to the University of Houston’s Moores Opera House, where HSPVA students have performed for years.

Having the theater as the core of the whole building way key for Newell.

“The vertical arrangement of the building was going to be unique for a high school campus,” he says. “Typically, you’re looking at two or three or four buildings sprawled out with parking lots around it.

“This one wanted to be a good neighbor to the theater district downtown. It’s situated in a full city block. It’s almost like a Jenga puzzle around this central main theater.”

Singing in the Hallways

All of the other classes and learning spaces do “donuts” around the theater all the way up the building. It worked out well that way, especially as theaters don’t need windows.

But students do need space to roam, explore, create. And, well, burst out into song and dance. Think of a hipster, no holds-barred High School Musical.

“Another kind of design inspiration — the commons. At the current school they have what they call ‘the commons.’ It’s a two-story area that serves as kind of an auditorium thing, a cafeteria, a general hangout,” Newell says.

He describes it as the perfect spot to expect the unexpected — flash mobs included. “You’ve seen some of those pop-up performances. That happens all the time there,” he laughs.

“They sing out loud in the hallway. We wanted to create a couple of those spaces. One’s basically right there at the entry of the two-story lobby space. Which also triggers that kind of connectivity with the downtown fabric, kind of inviting the general public.”

Bringing the Arts Together

Newell designed the campus so that all of the arts could play off one another.

“I didn’t want them to be siloed into their art areas,” he says. “I wanted that cross-pollination of music and visual arts and creative writing. There are a lot of areas where we tried to blend those groups together.”

Acoustics were a big challenge, as the goal was for the sound of groups practicing their music would pour out into the hallway, but the trains passing outside wouldn’t make a peep. The architect believes they’ve succeeded.

Newell’s favorite part of the project may have been the process even more than the design, thanks to the talented students.

“Comparing this project to your standard architecture project, there are certain milestones. So you have a groundbreaking, they raise the last piece of steel at the top of the building, there’s a ribbon cutting,” Newell says.

“But on this project there have been so many productions. It’s not just your typical stuffy people standing there with shovels, everyone claps and we walk away. No, each one of their art areas spoke or performed. It was really moving because you go wow, these students are really talented.”

A few students have come to see the new campus already, which is 90 percent complete.

“It’s exciting to watch the students and the staff. The ones that have been able to come over and visit already — they just get really excited about their new home,” Newell says.

It was all made possible by nonprofit HSPVA Friends raising funds via a $10 million capital campaign launched in October of 2016. The Kinder Foundation committed the lead gift of $7.5 million.

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but we bet these excited young artists have a good eye.

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