A new design for Harlem School of the Arts: an interview with John Storyk, architect and acoustician

John Storyk is the Founding Partner and Director of Design of Walters Storyk Design Group (WSDG): an architect and acoustician who creates recording studios (clients include Jimi Hendrix, Jay-Z and Bob Marley) and prestigious music facilities and venues.

Here he talks to Steve Bailey about one of his latest projects: a multi-purpose lobby and performance space for Harlem School of the Arts (HSA). The school, founded in 1964, is a beacon for Harlem’s arts education world, providing Harlem’s youth of colour with a sanctuary where they can learn the skills to express themselves through art, music, and performance. An ambitious renovation of the building, known as The Renaissance Project, has been launched in partnership with the Herb Alpert Foundation to transform the historic building into a world-class performance venue on a par with the Allen Room at Jazz at Lincoln Center, also designed by WSDG.  

Could you introduce yourself and tell us a little about your previous experience of working on projects connected with education?

I grew up respecting education and loving it. It was my dad’s dream to send me and my brother to college, specifically to liberal arts college, I’m a huge believer in that. 

From early in my professional career, having studied architecture and minored in philosophy, the concept of interns and apprentices was ingrained in my belief system. I’ve always had interns and this is a longstanding practice in the architecture community. I’ve always taught, and since we’re steeped in that tradition, it didn’t come as a shock that we got asked to work on schools. And then, of course, one thing leads to another. We’ve worked on dozens of educational projects from Full Sail University, Berklee College of Music, and NYU here in the United States, to international projects like The Avenues School in Shenzhen, China, TEC de Monterrey in Mexico, and ICESI in Cali, Colombia.

When did you first become aware that acoustic design might have a profound impact on a school?

We first started to get asked to bring our studio design experience into a school environment around 35 years ago. What has happened on more than one occasion is that I’ll get asked to lecture at an educational facility on architectural acoustics and while I’m touring the school the hosts will realize that there are potential projects that could be done that utilize this expertise. This actually just happened at Elon University when I lectured there and this led to us now designing their new mastering suite.

We’re very comfortable in these environments and we’ve grown to have a sense of what students and educators need to get the most out of them. Most of the needs are not terribly different than professional facilities but there are some key things that we’ve found in all of our educational projects. The rooms tend to need to be a bit more translucent, as opposed to the privacy of a studio, due to the fact that it’s a teaching facility and they want students to look in. They also want this effect for the tour as well. Sometimes the seating capacity has to be bigger because studios are being used as classrooms. The rooms are used 24/7 and are being operated by students, so you also need to deal with wear and tear issues.

The Harlem School of the Arts project is a little different. It’s a very special organization that I’ve known about for decades but only very recently got involved with. We got called in directly by Herb Alpert, who we’d worked with on projects in the past. His foundation is funding the HSA renovations. Herb is a very fascinating man. He cares a lot about what things sound and look like. Everything else is secondary to him. The renovation is a complicated one because it calls for a giant multi-purpose lobby that you enter into very quickly and is used for a lot of things, including as their primary recital room. Herb quickly realized that this was a very special space and insisted we were brought in for the project. It was an honor to be asked. 

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HSA lobby with double-height glass wall angled at 5-degrees off the vertical

It does present some challenges because it has to look cool and be inviting while still achieving the acoustic goals that the school has for the space. The room has to be able to handle multiple layouts and uses. We’ve been working with a great architectural firm, Imrey Studio LLC, to ensure that we solve these design problems. Generally speaking, on most of the school projects we’ve done, we’re paired with either an in-house team or a local architect and we like doing that. It makes for a very collaborative process. It takes a small village to make a project. You have to have a good design team and we’ve been lucky to have that with the school administration and our partners at Imrey Studio LLC. They believe in art, music, a better world. We like to ally ourselves with people like that.

Could you describe how you researched the human aspects of the design of the new performance space at HSA i.e. how did you connect with students and teachers and what did you learn from them?

Definitely a lot of interaction with teachers. Not too much with the students. I’ve observed a number of students’ activities, mostly to see what they do, how they behave and what kind of performances we need to accommodate. I will interact with students at times because I often end up lecturing in advance of the project, so that’s fun and I get a lot of questions. Often that’s how we get interns, however in the case of HSA we were mostly observing to get a sense of the needs and patterns of the people who work and learn there.

The biggest aim of these observations was to find out the various functions that are going to happen in the new lobby. Sometimes it has to be a circle in the round room for dance, sometimes it has to be set up for a banquet for a special event, sometimes it’s an exhibit hall, so we needed a big wall that could hold art. Sometimes it needs to be private. We needed to identify these kinds of functions. In this case, the room is quite multifunctional which is different than say, designing a recording studio for Berklee College of Music where the functions are very specific.

Did you experience any conflict between what you wanted to achieve acoustically and the appearance/historical aspects of the building? 

Not from our perspective. Our design partners at Imrey Studio LLC had to wrestle with it a little bit, but we didn’t have anything to do with the original building. They were glad to get rid of some of it!


How do you ensure that the potential flexibility of the space i.e. acoustic curtains etc. are used by students and teachers at the school rather than getting fixed in permanent positions?

You have to start with a great design and ensure that it’s workable and accessible. You take the time and the energy to deal with your client and do sketches and layouts to make sure you’ve accommodated every kind of layout. You design accordingly to make sure it works. In this case, we made sure that we understood exactly what the school was looking for in regards to different uses for the space and designed to accommodate that.

Our basic idea was to take down this big masonry wall and put up a glass entry wall instead. Not only did this expose the community to what is going on inside of this wonderful community center on a day by day basis, but it also made it more welcoming to those inside. Not to mention taking better advantage of natural light. 

Exterior view of the Harlem School of the Arts

Obviously a large reflective surface like this creates some acoustic problems but we solved this through careful acoustic modeling of the room and strategic use of sound absorptive materials. In order to accommodate the different types of performances that will be going on in this space, we also added acoustic controllability with movable acoustic banners and privacy screens to change the configuration of the room.

By understanding the programming of the room and designing accordingly, you have a space that will be accessible, easy to use and that will stand the test of time.

Was the historical heritage of the site something that you represented acoustically?

No. I love historical buildings but what we did was a new project, which is what they wanted. For decades, the exterior of the building didn’t adequately represent the wealth of arts education that was going on inside and by renovating it accordingly, we were able to better represent that. Now they’re getting a world-class performance space that’s visible from the street, cementing their important connection to the arts community in Harlem.

Thank you to Steve Bailey of Hummingbird Media for recording this interview for A&E in New York in December 2019


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