Change of state

28 Feb 2010

New York State University design new school for dance and theatre to collaborate with renowned Crane School of Music

To design a school for dance and theatre for the State University of New York at Potsdam, given the site and context, was a challenge from the outset. Geographically, the university is located in what is termed 'North Country', in the foothills of the Adirondacks, where snow abounds and harsh overcast winters dominate the school year and overpower the short- lived time in which the highly varied landscape reveals itself during the summer months.The two departments, theatre and dance, which until now had inherited all the 'scraps and left-over's' scattered throughout the university, will finally be united into one contiguous place. Ironically, it was this 'hand-me-down' history, with facilities literally cobbled together - chairs from one place and curtains from another - that heightened creativity and interdepartmental collaboration.

The new facility, however, will have to contend with being located on the 'front lawn' of and attached to the Crane School of Music which, until now, had both physically and politically sat apart from the rest of the campus, despite its prominence as a nationally recognised institution. Thus the question (to be answered) was how to design a building that would both stand independent and also catalyse an interdisciplinary and collaborative working environment with a neighbour of such prestige.The answer centered around the urbanisation of the lobby, which would become the living room of a new arts village where all paths would cross, thus blurring the distinction between the front of house and the back of house, and one school from another. Rather than placing the lobby in typical fashion to signify the front entrance, it was surrounded by as many differing programmatic functions as possible, given its modest size. This maximised visual connectivity between the daily activities of a learning environment, especially among components that would otherwise be located away from the lobby behind the performance spaces. This was accomplished by organising the program into two categories based on height, large and small. The large, theatres and performance spaces, movement studios and scene shop, among others, were grouped together allowing for the small, offices, administration, and classrooms, to stack in a relatively compact footprint. This proved to be an efficient way of dealing with circulation, mechanical systems, and overall simplicity of construction. But above all, centralising the lobby played down the formality of the 'front entrance', where the reality of having to respond to all sides of the site, and in particular to that of its immediate neighbour, democratised the relationship of the building to the campus.

Much in the same way that geography tells us the story of the earth's tectonic plates shifting, the undulating roof responds to the differing volumes beneath it, yet still unifying them much like a blanket of snow over the disparate elements of an otherwise varied landscape.The architecture at its best is informal. Great rifts split apart the volumes, allowing movement of students to pass over, under, beneath, and behind forms. Ledges, bridges, perches and outcroppings provide places for students to gather, collaborate, or simply relax. Above, the roof lifts to capture the low winter light through twenty-foot clerestories and reflects it deep into the building off a tessellated ceiling surface. Energised by a continuous confluence of students punctuating the forms with their arrivals and departures, the centralised living room lobby will always be alive with activity.

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