From the gently sloping approach path, the William M. Lowman Concert Hall rises into view through a screen of tall pines at the Idyllwild Arts Academy. At first glimpse, the hall’s reddish-brown cladding resembles the wood buildings that dot the surrounding rugged terrain, high in California’s San Jacinto Mountains. This 205-acre property was once a summer camp. And though it evolved, about 30 years ago, into a professional-caliber boarding high school for the performing and visual arts, the campus has retained its original rustic character. But as you near the new concert hall, you realize its cladding isn’t wood but pleated weathering steel, and the building’s quiet complexity begins to reveal itself.

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The facade—an irregularly faceted sheer face with a mountainlike roofline silhouette—echoes Lily Rock, the massive granite outcropping in the background. In designing the hall, Los Angeles–based Sander Architects (SA) cut back dense growth to reopen sight lines to this natural monument in the landscape; the designers also borrowed the rhythmic cross-section of folds across the hall’s rusted skin from the ascending and descending notes of a musical score. Yet virtually nothing about the building is an indulgent or purely poetic gesture.

“From the inception, this was a real collaboration between architect and acoustician,” says SA director of interiors Catherine Holliss. Nick Antonio, the project’s acoustics consultant, then with Arup, was on board from the outset. “There was continuous melding of aesthetics, acoustics, structure, and sense of place.”

The academy aspired to create a world-class performance hall for orchestral music, but its budget was extremely lean—ultimately translating into $4.3 million in construction costs for an 8,150-square-foot building. The architects responded by inventively adapting off-theshelf and utilitarian building components, beginning with the structural skeleton: a prefabricated steel system more typical of warehouse or farm-shed construction. SA already had extensive experience transforming such cost-effective, pre-engineered systems, “but bringing this approach to a cultural institutional project,” says SA principal Whitney Sander, “was unusual.”

With Antonio, the architects determined the optimal proportions for the 300-seat hall and the need for a 54-foot clear span across it. Based on these design parameters, along with anticipated snow loads, wind, and seismic forces, building-system software proposed structural frames “with an interesting M-configuration on their undersides,” Sander recalls. Though these steel profiles were calculated for practicality—including minimizing cost—aesthetically, he says, “we found the forms quite beautiful.” Once Antonio confirmed that such bends could enhance the acoustics, the architects exposed and extended them over the hall’s entire ceiling.

This synergistic design process resulted in a state-of-the-art hall that fits comfortably into its laid-back campus. At the building’s main entrance, wide, perpendicular glass doors slide apart, opening a corner of the lobby to the outdoors. The siting in relation to existing buildings defines an open-air gathering space, and the corner invites concertgoers out onto the terrace.

Inside, the lobby is a harmonious composition of simple elements. With a celestial quality, 40 pendant globe lamps hang at various levels overhead, swaying gently with air movement. The architects considered $10,000 chandeliers, but found this economical solution (at barely $100 per fixture) far more engaging—playing against a soaring ceiling, glossy concrete floors, and highly figured plywood wall panels, with metal channels for hanging artwork.

But the greatest achievement was the intimate performance space. In contrast to many concert-venue configurations, it’s a rather simple box, but one animated by its acoustic and visual elements. In tuning the hall, Antonio called for sound-diffusing features, which the architects rendered as fins of exposed lumber, 4-by-8-inch planks, that extend up the side walls and follow the ceiling’s M-shaped contours. 

“The surrounding pine forests,” says Sander, “inspired ribs that lean at different angles the way tree trunks deflect slightly from the vertical.” And, Antonio confirmed, this deviation from the parallel contributed to the acoustics. SA extended the “Hall of Trees” metaphor with dark green paint for the exposed wall surfaces and for the beams and ceiling above the zigzagging fins, where it tucked lighting and other equipment. Holliss chose paler green upholstery for the raked seating, furnishings also devised to maintain the hall’s acoustic qualities whether it’s packed or empty. Hidden under the chairs is an ultraquiet and efficient supply-air plenum that vents cooled or heated air from slits in the stair risers.

Compared with many other concert venues, Lowman Hall has a remarkably low cost per square foot. “A facility of this nature and quality could easily be double or triple the price,” says performance- space expert Robert Young of Arup, who consulted on the project. Besides the interdisciplinary teamwork and deft use of inexpensive elements, it helped that this quiet bucolic site didn’t require costly acoustic isolation from the outdoors. But the budget did not provide for such wish-list items as administrative offices or rehearsal rooms.

Since Lowman Hall opened in September—leaving the campus’s older, far less musically sympathetic theater to drama and dance— the new hall has enjoyed constant use. Apart from performances and master classes, students are welcome to slip in and practice on stage throughout the day. As one young virtuoso violinist recently put it, “It’s not just a beautiful hall—it’s an amazing place to play.”



Sander Architects


Costa and Associates (structural);

Macasero Engineering (mechanical);

JMD Engineering (electrical);

C.A. Lampman Associates (plumbing);

Stevens Group (civil)


Arup (acoustics and theater);

Exponent (fire and safety);

Facility Builders & Erectors (preengineered metal building)

General contractor:

Hamel Contracting





Wood doors:

Graham Wood Doors; Assa Abloy

Paints and stains:









Western Window Systems