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.
Plain Dealer architecture critic Steven Litt recently wrote a rather positive review of the Roe Green Center for Theater and Dance on the main campus of Kent State University, and my own opinions about the building renovation are so strong I feel the need to weigh in.
For some reason, I can’t look at Holzman Moss Botino (HMB)’s addition without thinking of Dennis Hopper. But more on that in a moment. First, it’s necessary to take notice that Brutalism is back on campus. The style that dominated American collegiate architecture from the ‘60s to the ‘80s has returned to Kent State, heroic as ever, in the form of a black box theatre, part of a transformation of the existing Music and Speech Building into the new Roe Green Center (RGC). Articulated with striped and textured block reminiscent of Marcel Breuer’s 1972 Education Wing for the Cleveland Museum of Art, it takes the form of an inverse ziggurat, stepping outward as it rises. Like Breuer’s addition, the RGC’s black box introduces a new material language, but here that language gels with the blonde brick of the original building. The trouble is, this brutal block blends better with the original building than it does with the rest of the RGC. I attribute this disharmony to the absurd number of form and material changes the architects used. The building reminds me of clunky acting, a series of outsize gestures independent of one another, not integrated into a cohesive character, and that’s where Dennis Hopper comes in.
Like Brutalism, the Method acting for which Hopper is known is a macho, muscular and heroic style, searching for the emotional and psychological truth of characters in between the lines of a script. When used effectively, “The Method” yields deeply affecting, subtle performances like those of Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire and On the Waterfront, but “The Method” also produced Hopper’s twitchy, psychotic photojournalist in Apocalypse Now. A flurry of movements and juxtaposed tones of voice, Hopper’s performance fills the entire space he’s given and demands attention whenever he’s onscreen. It’s that type of prodigiousness that I see in the Roe Green Center. The addition speaks in many tones, and fills its allotted space robustly. But unlike Hopper’s genius portrayal of paranoia and psychosis, the result is a cacophonous composition of stepped profiles in competition with their surroundings. HMB seem to have had difficulty deciding which of their voices should occupy the foreground, and therefore no discrete character emerges.
If there is a tell-tale detail here, it’s the glass detail abutting the black box theatre. The glass datum simply stops, and the theatre form continues uninterrupted. Each of the discrete pieces (block theatre, metal roof, glass wall, column) remains independent of one another. The construction of this glass wall encapsulates the slapdash use of materials, colors and textures that has permeated almost all recent construction at Kent State. Starting from the bottom, the profiled block clashes egregiously with the block types used for the black box, both in color and texture. Why this particular profile and color were selected makes little sense other than to differentiate the form of the lobby from that of the black box and existing building. Further distinguishing this lobby space is its back wall, painted the putrid yellow color that has propagated like a virus on the Kent State campus in recent years. The University Architect, it seems, would like every interior to feel like an overripe banana.
The contrast between the built iteration of this entry space and early renderings tells me a particularly harsh value engineering phase was required of HMB, leaving a patchwork where there once was a clear concept. While it may make practical sense in the snow belt to include a solid base for curtain walls, certainly a more elegant solution could have been found.
Light-filled and pleasant as they are, the insertion of dance studios offered an opportunity for HMB to open up the sterile, institutional hallways of the original building, but instead the connection is timid and unarticulated, easily overlooked. From forms so outspoken on the outside, one would expect a more significant presence on the interior. On the exterior, these studios introduce yet more formal and material contrast, this time a running brick pattern and a haphazard pattern of horizontal windows.
To HMB’s credit, RGC must have been an incredibly difficult commission. Its intent was to modernize (or perhaps post-modernize) the look of an large, confusing building with a small number of redeeming characteristics. HMB chose to further complicate that reading with an ensemble cast of new formal and material characters. They set an almost impossible task for themselves, and it is no surprise the finished product disappoints. This is one instance where less ambition would be preferable, an understated Brando rather than a convoluted Hopper. While I appreciate that the University administration has branched out and hired an out-of-town architect for this project, it seems to this author that they could have gotten something this slapdash from anyone under the sun.