Northridge, Calif. — If you don’t live on this side of Los Angeles—that is, if you don’t live in the San Fernando Valley, which stretches north and west of downtown—getting to Northridge can mean a hike through heavy traffic. But the trip is worth making to see the new, $125-million Valley Performing Arts Center on the California State University campus here. The building sparkles.
Designed by HGA Architects & Engineers, the 166,000-square-foot facility has a 1,700-seat main hall and a black-box theater along with rehearsal space and the usual amenities—dressing rooms, costume facilities, and a set-construction shop. Also in the complex are classrooms, a 230-seat lecture hall—the campus’s largest—and studios for the university’s public-radio station, KCSN.
But the big wow is the lobby, whose soaring glass wall curves asymetrically across the front of the building. The stone floor continues under the glass and, once outside, dips to become the bottom of a shallow reflecting pool that causes the facade to shimmer, day and night, with reflected light. A staircase sheathed in the same stone climbs up through the lobby—a simple, necessary element that doubles as the space’s focal point, drawing visitors’ eyes up toward a lively ceiling of suspended rectangles. (Despite all the glass, the building was designed to achieve LEED silver certification.)
In the main hall, the stage has 60 lines to lift Broadway-scale scenic elements into the fly loft. Hidden acoustical curtains and sound reflectors can be adjusted to tune the space for solo recitals or orchestral works. The sunken orchestra pit can be raised to the audience level to accommodate additional seating, or it can be lifted to stage height to bring the production out into the hall itself. Built-in surround-sound speakers enhance film showings.
The main hall forms the south side of the complex, which was designed to be a high-profile landmark on the south edge of the campus, alongside a major artery. (There’s lots of parking nearby—always a concern for big halls.) Cleverly, the complex’s big loading dock is disguised with giant folding doors, so the back of the building doesn’t always look like, well, the loading dock. (In Google Maps you can see a satellite view of the complex when it was under construction.)
Even more attractive is the north side of the main hall, where glass walls overlook a landscaped plaza and the wing that houses the lecture hall and radio station. The plaza, which has lighting built into the pavement, will double as an outdoor-event locale—in fact, hookups for caterers are already in place. And one wall of the rehearsal room lifts open to create an indoor-outdoor space, with the wall serving as its awning.
Who’s going to use all this? W. Robert Bucker, the center’s executive director, says the San Fernando Valley has “a pent-up desire to see high culture, and a tremendous interest in pop culture.” The new facility should will be a venue for both, he says. February brought a performance by Shawn Colvin and Loudon Wainwright III, along with the Russian National Ballet. March will see Joan Rivers, the Parsons Dance Company, a student production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in the black-box theater, and a one-man show starring Ed Asner as Franklin D. Roosevelt. A May performance by Patty LuPone and Mandy Patinkin is already sold out.
Until now, Mr. Bucker says, the San Fernando Valley has been “a vast area with no performing-arts center,” forcing residents to drive downtown or to Pasadena or Santa Monica for cultural events. “We’re finding out more about our community,” he says. “We’ll learn what they want to come to the campus to see.” He also says that, in line with the university’s mission to be accessible, every performance will have some tickets available in the $15-to-$25 range, and faculty and staff members will get a 20-percent discount. The discount for students is 40 percent.