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University of Iowa – Hancher Auditorium

Iowa City, Iowa, USA


OPN Architects, Architect of Record; Cedar Rapids, IA
Pelli Clarke Pelli Architects, Design Architect; New Haven, CT
Theatre Projects Consultants, Theatre Consultants; South Norwalk, CT
Threshold Acoustics, Audio-Video Systems Design; Chicago, IL

Project Description

Since 1972, Hancher Auditorium has been a landmark presence in Iowa City, as the largest performance space for the University of Iowa School of Music and as the premier civic performing arts center for southeast Iowa. For decades Hancher presented a varied and ambitious slate of artists, including major orchestras and Broadway tours, with particular strength in dance. In 2008 a major flood severely damaged the building, and FEMA determined that it should be replaced with a new, comparable facility on higher ground.

The new Hancher Auditorium opened in 2016, serving the same broad mix of uses in a more intimate 1,800-seat house. Hancher is the fifth collaboration on a major performing arts center by the trio of Pelli Clarke Pelli, Theatre Projects Consultants, and Kirkegaard Associates. The design team was filled out by architect of record OPN, structural engineer Thornton Tomasetti, MEP engineers Alvine, and AV designer Threshold.

The result is stunning, visually and acoustically. The theater is deliberately designed to be an excellent space for natural sound–warm, articulate, and exciting for symphony, chorus, opera, and chamber music—as well as an excellent space for amplified performers–Broadway, popular music, comedians, and dance. An orchestra shell with four settings accommodates any size of ensemble. An extensive array of acoustic curtains is carefully located to provide maximum clarity for amplified events. Unique, custom-designed motorized “bass traps” in the upper corners of the hall can be deployed to ensure a clean bass for amplified shows.

Heavy concrete walls and a structural isolation joint around the audience chamber and stagehouse maintain a pristinely quiet condition for performances, even when nearby frat houses hold outdoor parties. Backstage, a spacious costume shop and scene shop that serve the university’s production needs can be used at any time. Below the hall, a fully-isolated audio recording room captures performances in the hall and allows the School of Music to edit recordings.

A large multi-purpose room can be set up for all manner of rehearsals or smaller performances. Movable curtains and motorized banners allow the room’s acoustic to adjust to a range of uses. A sprung floor for dancers and a tension wire technical grid for theatrical use further extend its usefulness.

Large outdoor performances are held on Hancher’s lawn between the theater and the Iowa River. Smaller performances are accommodated by an outdoor stage with a raked seating bowl outside the rehearsal room.

The lobby, with its dramatic overhangs and outdoor terraces, includes a cafe that draws people to the building throughout the day. The lobby’s acoustics are controlled but moderately live–a pleasant place to hear an informal performance, and comfortable but exciting when filled with intermission audiences.

photos: © Jeff Goldberg / Esto

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