When I first heard that Bowling Green State University had commissioned the internationally renowned architecture firm Snohetta to design their new performing arts building, I was cautiously optimistic. For their first building in North America, the Oslo-based office had taken a surprisingly small commission in a surprisingly backwater location. Best known for their elegant landform buildings for the Oslo Opera House and Bibliotheca Alexandrina, how well could their work translate to an unmemorable campus devoid of the drama of those sites? What would their response be to the soporific landscape of Northwest Ohio?
In gestural terms, the new Wolfe Center for the Arts at BGSU is a rousing success. Rising dramatically from a flat site, its metal panels and tilted geometry have introduced a completely new vocabulary to an otherwise banal group of campus buildings. A glazed facade terminates this rise, cantilevering over the entry and imposing itself on the adjacent parking lot.
The Wolfe Center lobby is light-filled and well appointed. It is dominated by a grand concrete stair/bleacher at its center, a clever element which effectively ties together the room’s two functions: campus lounge and posh reception area. This striking element will no doubt be used as both a place to study and a people-watching perch similar to the famous stair and balconies at Charles Garnier’s Paris Opera. The other dominant lobby element is a large skylight at the terminus of the stair. Its size and shape gave the space a pleasant atmosphere on the cloudless day of my visit. Early renderings show a series of these skylights, but it seems to this author that more would have caused the interior to be overlit and seem more sterile.
Equally dramatic is the skylight running the full length of the back-of-house hallway. Clad in dark gray CMU and charcoal stained wood paneling, this space, though less ambitious, is just as successful as its larger cousin. Both these spaces for movement overshadow the small theatre spaces at the building’s heart.
One can exit the building onto a small patio framed by offices for performing arts faculty, paved in a linear pattern that appears a vestige of value engineering. On this side, the Wolfe camouflages itself within a hill. This green slope will eventually be used for outdoor performances, but its sod was yet to establish itself at the time of my visit.
As successful as the overall building gesture is, a few confusing and inconsistent details almost sink it. A preponderance of small issues has added up to a big problem. The most egregious error involves a pair of sprinklerheads unceremoniously placed in the aforementioned lobby skylight atop plumbing (thankfully) painted to match the adjacent wall. Details like these are often symptomatic of a strained relationship between design and executive architects. Leaving construction administration in the hands of locals, global practices can sometimes lose control of important details to a building’s detriment. It seems likely this has happened to the Wolfe.
From a design standpoint, there are a few questionable moves as well. 1) On the building’s flanks, windows don’t occur often enough to become a pattern, and instead seem capitulations to programmatic circumstance. 2) Just inside the building’s prow lies a group of small classrooms that are fully isolated and surrounded by circulation, creating an island or a building-within-a-building. While this does create a observation spots on either side, it results in strange fish-tank-like spaces. 3) The selection of concrete masonry walls for some interior spaces is disappointing. It seems to lower the building to the level of its neighbors, and gives these spaces an unfortunately institutional atmosphere.
A central question for me is whether this commission even worthy of Snohetta. Commissioning an internationally recognized office for such a modest building meant it must have been a chore rather than a labor of love, and perhaps its shortcomings are the result of a lack of attention. But when Craig Dykers and co. are simultaneously working on the 9/11 Museum in Manhattan and an addition to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, who can blame them? While the Wolfe Center is far from perfect, here’s hoping more state universities take chances on ambitious architecture in the future. Perhaps the lesson here is for other campuses to work with younger, perhaps local outfits looking to establish themselves rather than an international crew whose reputation may not be tarnished by a failure in a flyover state.