CMNW Council

Corvallis’s PRAx of life opens its doors

OSU’s new performance and exhibition space, a busy hub of activity from morning to evening, brings a chance to transform how people see the university – and it has an open house April 6.

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PRAx — the Patricia Valian Reser Center for the Creative Arts — on the Oregon State University campus in Corvallis. The new center, designed to help link OSU’s arts programs with its science and technology programs, boasts a 500-seat performance space, exhibition halls, and more. Photo: Blake Brown

On a recent spring morning in Corvallis at Oregon State University’s Patricia Valian Reser Center for the Creative Arts, or PRAx, workers were busy with the finishing touches of its construction: vacuuming the 500-seat auditorium, moving two Steinway grand pianos into place onstage, polishing its largest glass expanse from a crane outside.


OREGON CULTURAL HUBS: An Occasional Series


In PRAx’s main gallery space beside the auditorium, Bob Santelli, the university’s director of popular music and performing arts, was installing the inaugural exhibition “Sonic Booms,” featuring historic instruments from the Hard Rock Café collection including guitars by Alice Cooper, Gene Simmons of KISS, and Peter Frampton, as well as an oddity: Eric Clapton’s one-of-a-kind electric sitar. “Experiments are what we’re trying to showcase,” said the center’s executive director, Peter Betjemann.

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Outside the main gallery, art seemed to continually draw from science and nature. In the lobby was hanging the center’s only permanent work, a commissioned sculpture by digital artist Refik Anadol, its abstract shape based on bioacoustics data culled from thousands of OSU’s archival birdsong recordings. Near the entrance, an array of light boxes displayed images from artist Rick Silva’s Silva Field Guide to Birds of a Parallel Future series, an almanac of imagined aviary species. And in the black box-style Edward J. Ray Theater, Portland artist Fernanda D’Agostino was testing out her immersive video installation, projecting images of dancers and ocean waves onto undulating, semi-opaque curtains: a captivating visual poetry complemented by sonic artist Crystal Cortez’s sounds of ocean tides.

Fernanda D’Agostino’s immersive video installation “Mar, Mar e Mar.” Photo courtesy PRAx.

Even several days before its April 6 open house, PRAx has become a captivating, highly accessible crossroads of creativity and inquiry. OSU has long been known for its respected science and business education, with alumni including two-time Nobel Prize-winning scientist Linus Pauling as well as tech-industry heavyweights such as E-Trade co-founder Bernie Newcomb and Nvidia co-founder Jen-Hsun Huang. But arts? Less so. Thanks to a $25 million donation from alumnus Patricia Reser in 2017, kickstarting this new arts center, that may change.

Leading our tour that day, hours before taking OSU President Jayathi Y. Murthy and Corvallis Mayor Charles Maughan through the building that afternoon, Betjemann delighted in showing off the exhibits and infrastructure. After the art, he eagerly led me up a tall ladder to the building’s catwalks, pointing out operable acoustic curtains that can adjust sound at the touch of a button. Yet Betjemann’s most prideful moments seemed to come while demonstrating the building’s openness and accessibility.

“A big design principle here is that we have a lot of first-generation students at OSU, who might not have been in art spaces before,” Betjemann said. “The idea was, creating a sense that you could come in from all sides. It’s about the porosity of education.”

Collapsing Distinctions and Dancing Windows

Entryway to the new Patricia Valian Reser Center for the Creative Arts, at Oregon State University in Corvallis. Photo: Blake Brown

Performing arts venues usually come with an inherent paradox, attracting people from all walks of life yet usually remain shuttered for most of the day, until evening programming begins. Except in front, they also tend to be largely windowless in order to fully control their stage environments, seeming all the more like fortresses. But that’s not the case at PRAx.

“We knew that this building, even though it has to have a front of house and back of house, was going to be a 360-degree building that didn’t really have a back door,” explains Holst Architecture partner Dave Otte. “Very early on, we received a guiding principle from the dean of the College of Liberal Arts, Larry Rodgers. He wanted this building to collapse distinctions between performer and audience, between student and teacher, between the community and the university. This would be a working building, where you see things happening and can appreciate everything that goes into creating art.”

Complementing its evening performances, PRAx serves as an academic building from 8 a.m. to noon each weekday. The primary green room for performers about to go onstage, for example, also serves as a classroom.

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From the lobby at the northern entrance, Betjemann demonstrates another example: The ticket counter slides on tracks, so it can push up against the wall when not in use, to make way for a stream of students coming inside each morning. A few feet away from that ticket booth, it’s possible to look to the outside in all four directions at once, exemplifying the second guiding principle that Holst received.

“This building is going to have students and the public coming to it from all directions, so we talked about very intentionally creating this circulation path of crossroads,” Otte explains. “We have the main north-south lobby that that connects the venues—the auditorium, gallery and black-box theater—in a very public-facing way. Then we have the east-west corridor, what we call the student corridor. They come together at this central moment where you can see and access all the spaces and understand the building in one cohesive way.”

Much of the PRAx building is wrapped in warm wood. Photo: Brian Libby

PRAx’s visual signature is its windows. On its eastern side, the glass-ensconced ground floor gives way to a wood facade perforated with a random, almost jazzy array of square openings at different elevations. “The architect calls these the dancing windows,” Betjemann said during the tour. “I also like thinking of them as notes on a musical staff.” 

On the upper exterior walls to the south and east are two large oculus windows that fill the gallery and the lobby with natural light, and “serve as a marker for that corner,” says Holst associate architect Erin Fox. “Now it’s the first thing you see when you’re approaching the building.” The firm’s exhibit consultants were concerned about that much light coming into the gallery, which could be harmful to some sensitive future art on display. “But the entry into the gallery and the main public interface needed to be transparent and welcoming,” explains Otte. So Holst fashioned a workable solution: an operable screen that can cover the gallery’s oculus window from the inside.

The Unheard Train

PRAx was designed on a relatively tight budget, $75 million, but there was a collective will to build at its center a 500-seat auditorium with first-rate acoustics. That meant overcoming an inherent challenge: a railroad track just a few feet away from the building, which threatened to add unwanted blaring locomotive horns to otherwise intimate concerts. That’s why Holst worked with a first-rate acoustical consultant: New York’s JaffeHolden, whose portfolio includes numerous university arts centers as well as projects at Lincoln Center, Radio City Music Hall, and Carnegie Hall.

Before PRAx was designed, Holst and client representatives traveled to New York and other cities to visit existing performance venues for ideas. Of particular interest was Zankell Hall, a 600-seat underground chamber music venue at Carnegie Hall, which overcame an even greater rail-based acoustic threat. “The New York subway is at the same elevation as that hall and goes by about 20 feet off of it,” Otte says. “They were telling us about all the gymnastics they did to build this room without hearing the subway. It made us feel better: that if they could do that in Manhattan, we could do it in Corvallis.”

PRAx’s 500-seat performance hall features walnut and maple for warm sound quality, plus sophisticated acoustic engineering. Photo: Brian Libby

The 500-seat PRAx auditorium is encased in walnut and maple, giving it a warm sound. An acoustic curtain helps adjust the room to different performances and conditions. And during PRAx’s recent building-commissioning phase, when all of its systems and operations were tested, including auditorium acoustics, Otte recalls, “a train went by and in the sound readings it was zero.”

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Seattle Repertory Theatre Fat Ham

If 500 seats seems like a surprisingly modest number for an ambitious performance venue—Portland’s Keller Auditorium and Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall are just short of 3,000 seats each, while Eugene’s Hult Center’s large Silva Concert Hall tops out at about 2,450—that’s because OSU already has the 1,200-seat Austin Auditorium (at the LaSells Stewart Center), which will remain in operation for plays and other events. The university originally intended to add an adjacent new 400-seat venue and black box theater there. But the three-venue plan became too cumbersome for that site, leading the client to instead select this site at 15th Street and Washington Way.

At PRAx, “The idea was to focus more on making the most acoustically pure room for choir, for acoustic instruments, and for smaller performances,” Otte explains, “but also make the stage large enough that it works for a symphony.” The aforementioned large venues all struggle to create intimacy and have had questionable acoustic quality. PRAx’s relatively modest scale and the commitment to acoustics means it may be one of the best places in Oregon to hear music.

‘X’ For Experimentation

Two years ago, before a PRAx design was commissioned, a strategic planning process included not just input from external arts consultants but dozens of interviews with student and faculty stakeholders. “What we heard just over and over was, ‘We want to connect the arts to the campus as a whole,’” Betjemann explained. “And so the project morphed a little bit. It’s still based in the College of Liberal Arts, but it really became an all-university project in a new way. So we developed a strategic plan that is very much about connections between art and science and technology.”

That’s why PRAx’s inaugural and future art exhibits lean into that interdisciplinary mindset: art drawing from science. The “x” at the end of its abbreviated name stands for experimentation, which is more than rhetorical flair.

Still image from artist Rick Silva’s Silva Field Guide to Birds of a Parallel Future series, an almanac of imagined aviary species, which will be on display during PRAX’s public open house on Saturday, April 6.

“University art centers are a rung in the arts ecosystem that allow artists to experiment and make new things that they’re dreaming of,” says Ashley Stull Meyers, PRAx’s visual art curator, who previously curated the 2019 Oregon Biennial and Marylhurst University’s Art Gym. “It’s unlike a commercial gallery setting where the goal is to sell what you’re making, which may limit some experimentation. And it’s different from the parameters of a white-walled, more antiseptic space of a museum. University art centers like PRAx really allow artists some unique resources to be able to make new work.”

Even outside of the physical venue, PRAx represents a new university-wide commitment to infusing science- and technology-based programs with the creative approach that arts and humanities represent. “A lot of music conservatories and art schools scattered around the country don’t have on the same campus things like engineering and robotics and oceanography and all of the other disciplines that PRAx is looking to put in conversation with the arts,” says Peter Swendsen, director of OSU’s School of Visual, Performing and Design Arts. “We have a really interesting opportunity to think from the ground up with how to frame those conversations between disciplines and put practitioners in conversation with each other.”

If OSU is new to leading with arts, Swendsen believes that may actually be an advantage. “A challenge for many established schools of the arts and schools of music and performing arts is they come with a lot of history, which can be great, but it also brings a lot of baggage,” he explains. It makes it harder to innovate and to think freshly about curriculum and programs. This is a time in the arts and in arts education when we benefit a lot from being more nimble. A place like Oregon State has some opportunities to do things that would be harder to do somewhere else.”

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An Emerging Arts Corridor

Because PRAx’s construction began in August of 2021, amidst pandemic-related supply chain delays and disruptions, Holst and builder Hoffman Construction struggled to stay on schedule. But even then, a trend was already gaining momentum: an emerging community of arts venues outside of downtown Portland.

One of the reasons that PRAx uses an acronym instead of its full name is that there is already a Patricia Reser Center for the Arts, or The Reser, not in Corvallis but in Beaverton, which opened in March of 2022. And PRAx is not the only new venue in Corvallis. There is also the Benton County Historical Society’s Corvallis Museum, designed by acclaimed Portland architecture firm Allied Works, which opened in the city’s historic downtown in 2021.

“We see ourselves as part of an I-5 arts corridor,” Betjemann said as we completed the tour. “I work with Chris [Ayzoukian, the Reser Center’s director] a lot, and we’ve already co-presented some things. There’s an amazing community. All the directors of our different Northwest arts spaces meet once a month, and that allows us to take advantage of routing opportunities. Somebody can present at another of these venues and then present here and move on. And that’s great for our consumers, because of course, we can attract more marquee acts and offer lower ticket prices. It’s a new generation of facilities.”

***

Jazz singer Julia Keefe will perform with the Delbert Anderson Quartet, Franklin Piland, and the OSU Jazz Ensemble and OSU Chamber Choir, at 5 p.m. Saturday, April 6, at the PRAx open house.

PRAx Open House

  • Where: Patricia Valian Reser Center for the Creative Arts, Oregon State University, Corvallis. Map here.
  • When: Noon-7 p.m. Saturday, April 6.
  • Events: See full schedule here.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Brian Libby is a Portland-based freelance journalist and critic writing about architecture and design, visual art and film. He has contributed to The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Architectural Digest, The Atlantic, Dwell, CityLab and The Oregonian, among others. Brian’s Portland Architecture blog has explored the city’s architecture and city planning since 2005. He is also the author of “Tales From the Oregon Ducks Sideline,” a history of his lifelong favorite football team. A graduate of New York University, Brian is additionally an award-winning filmmaker and photographer whose work has been exhibited at the American Institute of Architects, the Portland Art Museum’s Northwest Film Center, and venues throughout the US and Europe. For more information, visit www.brianlibby.com.

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