“Greenhill is not buildings. It’s people.”
This was a sign posted by Greenhill School students after a fire in 1987 destroyed their 1974 Fulton Upper School building. It was a declaration of optimism and an understanding of the values of the school.
Fast forward almost three decades and there is a new declaration of the spirit of Greenhill, a building fundamentally about the expression of its people: the Marshall Family Performing Arts Center, which officially opened in February 2016. Designed by New York-based practice Weiss/Manfredi with Page as architect of record, the 65,000-sf facility brings together under one roof for the first time the school’s well-recognized theater, music, dance, and film programs.
Accommodating all of these space-types in one structure meant a lot of upfront planning that included site selection, site organization, and program adjacencies. Passing over what may have seemed like an obvious choice along a street at the campus periphery, the design team advocated for placing the building directly east of the main academic core. The purpose of this site choice, in the words of firm co-founder Marion Weiss, was connecting the center “to the carefully tuned sequence of open spaces on campus, and making the arts central to campus life.”
Integrating buildings with their environment is a major design tenet of Weiss/Manfredi, and the prevailing figure-field relationship of building to open space on campus is dissolved. The Arts Center is instead formed by a coil of program that melds inside and outside space using framed views and natural light, paradoxically feeling very connected to nature even though the building has little surrounding planting. The resultant spiraling form is a clever strategy that mitigates the visual mass of the fly loft while bringing the building into scale with the children and adjacent campus buildings. Spatial overlap and sectional richness are emphasized at the building approach as the topography of the site is carried into the lobby in a gentle cascade of floor trays.
A clear site strategy organizes the big box performance spaces and back of house to the east and all spaces with glazing to the west. The lobby stretches across the entire west face and acts as a collector rather than a single, formal entrance; one entry has direct visual and physical connection to the campus and the others greet the public from the north parking lot or directly from the plaza, thereby emphasizing the social nature of the forecourt. Moving into the building the experience is welcoming, exhilarating, and equally sophisticated in the manipulation of light and space. A sense of discovery and anticipation builds when walking through the episodic sequence of spaces. The project literally breaks the box using folded walls and roof planes, allowing the energy of students to find its way into the form of the architecture. In fact, performances can happen anywhere; outdoor plazas, generous stair landings, and wide passageways accommodate impromptu events. Even the two-story lobby becomes a figurative stage viewed from the outside with its piano-key frit pattern on the glass curtain wall.
Those who pay close attention will be rewarded by the level of craft and tactility Weiss/Manfredi brought to the project. “A subtext of the building is the combination of very humble materials with precious materials,” says firm co-founder Michael Manfredi. This idea is immediately apparent as the handcrafted brick envelope gives way to entry doors with custom pulls and polished concrete floors with smooth-face concrete masonry units at the interior. The Texas sun is embraced to maximum effect as the play of light and shadow against the neutral, almost all-white spaces creates an ever-changing, delicate pattern in the main lobby. The designers have given a unique, surprising material identity to each of the performance spaces. The main theater is a 600-seat venue wrapped throughout in cherry wood and warm tones, giving the space an intimate feeling, “like you are inside a violin,” as Manfredi puts it. The black box is not the usual color black, but instead midnight blue, painted on an alternating sequence of plywood and acoustic wood panels, creating the appearance of varying shades. A wire grid above provides safety to students while they manipulate the theater’s lighting. The dance space explodes with views and light through wall-to-wall glazing at the north and south ends of the room. This volume is lifted to the second floor and forms a covered entry plaza below, literally elevating dance to provide a living billboard of activity.
For all the marked qualities of the building, one less visible hallmark of the design is the flexibility throughout. This is an important planning challenge for a building of this type. Michael Orman, the performing arts building coordinator at Greenhill, was highly involved in the planning process. The building needed to serve many functions, not the least of which was “access by the students throughout so it would be used as a learning tool,” said Orman. The footprint is compact, but the performance spaces are kept just far enough apart to allow simultaneous use without any interference with one another. Other examples include a set of double doors that connect the black box theater to the lobby for special events and a 1:1 sizing of the dance rehearsal area with the size of the main stage proscenium.
The building unquestionably belongs to the legacy of great architecture on the Greenhill campus without repeating the formal tropes of the originals. Instead, celebration of the arts and community seamlessly merge, showing how design brings value through creative interpretations of placemaking to the students of Greenhill.
Ron Stelmarski, AIA, is design director for Texas practice at Perkins+Will.