Stephen Jarrett admits to being a little bit nervous.
It's the afternoon before the first evening performance inside the new BlackRock Center for the Arts in Germantown, an amorphous, fast-growing area in northern Montgomery County. Jarrett, the performing arts director, doesn't know quite what to expect.
Will the lights perform as planned in the multipurpose auditorium, one of two performing arts spaces in the new building? Will the sound system prove adequate in the boxy, no-frills space? How will the audience react? Will there even be much of an audience?
As it turned out, Jarrett's worries were misplaced. Folk singer Grace Griffith's clear soprano voice charmed a respectable crowd of 70 or so -- not bad, Jarrett says, considering the low-key publicity for last week's opening night. The lighting was "extremely clean," he reports, and the acoustics were "first-rate, much sweeter than anybody expected."
Named for a geological outcropping at an old, nearby mill, the BlackRock Center, in general, promises to be a big "upcounty" hit. This is because, all in all, it is a splendid facility that addresses a pressing need for cultural life in its immediate vicinity.
Clearly, the new institution won't threaten "downcounty" (much less downtown) arts venues, and that's the point: The center is just the right thing for its particular place. Other jurisdictions in the metropolitan region could learn a lot from it -- mostly positive lessons, along with two or three that are not so good.
The center had its beginning a decade or so ago, just as the construction boom of the 1990s was beginning. When developers came around to inquire about desired amenities for a long-planned town center -- an effort "to put the 'town' in Germantown," in an oft-repeated upcounty refrain -- public-spirited citizens made it clear that an arts facility was priority number one.
Consequently, after long negotiations involving residents, developers and county planners, a private, nonprofit organization was formed to run the arts center and a complex, private-public financial package was arranged.
Specifically, the Artery Group, developer of a large portion of the new town center, donated the land -- a 2.5-acre lot close by the intersection of Route 118 and Middlebrook Road. The building cost approximately $10 million, covered in part by a $2.95 million donation by another local company, Milestone Developers, and county and state contributions of $1.9 million and $1.7 million, respectively. The nonprofit group took out a $3.5 million loan to make up the remainder -- a worrisome mortgage for an arts group.
One of the qualities that make the center a model for other communities is its modest size: It is not too big, not overly ambitious. Rather, both the place and the program are sensibly scaled to meet a variety of distinctly local needs.
Diversity is a crucial part of the package. With an art gallery, three classrooms for art education, a dance studio, a flexible conference room, the multipurpose theater, an intimate proscenium theater seating 210 (opening in mid-November), a spacious lobby and an outdoor stage, BlackRock was sensibly designed to appeal to differing age groups and interests.
Technically, the center is up-to-the-minute. The lighting and sound systems are flexible and fully professional, as Griffith's opening-night performance demonstrated. Ventilation and climate control in the gallery are of "museum quality," says Calvert Bowie, of the well-known Washington firm Bowie Gridley Architects. Equipment in the art classrooms is first-class. It's the same story everywhere you look.
Overall, the architecture is thoughtfully responsive, reasonably inviting and thoroughly serviceable. This is fine, as far as it goes. It gives one confidence that the building will be useful and well used. Each of the interior spaces has been carefully shaped to accommodate its function. Natural light has been captured by attractive windows at every turn. The quality of the millwork in window and door frames is admirable -- in its craft, the building is a cut above the new architecture that surrounds it.
Still, there is something missing -- a spark, a song, a poem in brick, stone, wood and glass. However you describe the absence, it is regrettable. One would have hoped for both inspiration and utility in a civic building of such importance -- especially one devoted to the arts.
The best strategic move that the architects made in designing the building was the first. They refused to accept a diagram showing the building as a rectangular solid, a sort of miniature Kennedy Center with Colonial trim. Instead, they rightfully insisted on breaking the building into distinct pieces -- moving "from a solid box to a village," says Paul Lund of the Bowie Gridley firm.
This gave the designers the opportunity to express the center's multiple purposes in the architecture itself, and to create a more interesting design. But only the bare bones of this idea survived a long process of consultations and cost cuts.
A promising early design, with a variety of roof lines -- a graceful, curving form to suggest the athletic movement of dance, for instance -- was scuttled along the way. The final result -- a polite composition of pitched-roof, red-brick forms with barnlike overtones -- seems excessively cautious.
In the high, well-shaped lobby, the architects and artist Thomas Sayre worked together in an attempt to give the space an architectural soul. Sayre designed an appealing terrazzo floor in abstract reminiscence of upper Montgomery's flowing rivers and green hills, and he created three large, monolithic castings out of concrete and Montgomery County earth. Alas, the collaboration is only partially successful -- Bowie Gridley's architectural restraint and Sayre's rugged monoliths do not make an ideal pair.
Germantown's new town center, not incidentally, turns out to be one of those curious hybrids that are beginning to dot the regional -- and indeed, the national -- landscape.
That is, it is part town, in the sense that with close-by rowhouses and walk-up apartment buildings, the residential density is greater than the suburban norm. And its layout bears at least superficial resemblance to the traditional urban grid of streets.
But the pattern combines two other American traditions: the suburban mall and the strip shopping center. Thus, notwithstanding its so-called transit center (an exposed bus stop with attractive, permanent canopies for cover from rain and snow) and a few wide sidewalks, the new "town" in Germantown is thoroughly dependent on automobiles, with huge parking lots and scattered buildings.
Unfortunately, the respect paid to genuine civic endeavors and public spaces in these hybrids is quite negligible. In Germantown, pride of place is given to an immense grocery story, dolled up with a couple of Italianate towers, while the new arts center and its rather minimal "town green" are shoved to the side.
This is not something other communities would like to imitate. Happily, however, in many other respects the BlackRock Center for the Arts sets a good example.