Architects announced for new center for theater and dance

Nicole Pellaton
December 18, 2014

Tod Williams and Billie Tsien. Photo Jason Smith.

As she watched construction of the Academy Library during the summer of 1970, little did Billie Tsien, then a Yale undergraduate teaching at Exeter’s Summer School, dream that one day she’d design a performing arts center that would stand 700 feet from Louis I. Kahn’s landmark building, one she reveres for its ”timeless” design.

The husband-and-wife team of Tod Williams and Tsien, recently awarded the National Medal of Arts, has been selected to design Exeter’s center for theater and dance, a building expected to strengthen and broaden Exonian involvement in the performing arts, just as the Academy’s most recently completed academic building, the Phelps Science Center, placed science at the heart of an Exeter education in 2001.

The 63,000-square-foot center will incorporate a large main stage with orchestra pit and an intimate apron stage; flexible teaching, rehearsal and exploration spaces to be used extensively throughout the year; areas for technical design, craft and storage; and a lobby capable of hosting events.

Known for their sensitivity to context and innovative use of materials — one critic has said their works ”beg to be touched” — Williams and Tsien create buildings that are ”not signature as such, but that find a resolution to a specific program and a specific place,” Williams says. Their award-winning projects have included the American Folk Art Museum in New York City, with its sculptural sand-molded, white bronze façade; the recently opened, LEED Platinum-certified Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia, conceived as a ”gallery in a garden and a garden in a gallery”; Tata Consultancy Services in Mumbai, India, with panels hand carved by local artisans from local stone; and Cranbrook Natatorium in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, with 30-foot ceiling oculi, and mahogany wall panels that open to reveal the sky and landscape to swimmers.

No strangers to New England, the architects recently completed the Center for the Advancement of Public Action at Bennington College, and are currently working on the MacDowell Colony library in Peterborough, New Hampshire, and the expansion of the Hood Museum at Dartmouth College. For Bennington’s largely brick and wood campus, the architects were inspired by Vermont’s history as a marble producer. ”We surprised ourselves and the college by making a building in white marble,” Williams says, resulting in a light-catching building that ”looks quite beautiful in the winter and also in the summer.”

”When I think about Exeter, I think of the buildings being very strong volumes on a landscape — this is not a place where buildings hide,” Williams observes. Although the architects say it’s too early in the process to identify the materials they’ll use, they’re drawn to the classic New England character of Exeter (”It’s impossible to think of Exeter’s campus without thinking of brick,” they explain), but respect its historical evolution and the need to ”be alert to other influences that come into play.”

”We’re very aware of the sense of warmth in buildings,” says Tsien, who starts designing from the interior, with an aim to create quiet and serenity, ”a very calm center,” in all the firm’s designs. ”Color will play a particular role,” she says of the new center. ”We want to make sure that when you walk in the door, or even before you walk in the door, you feel as if you’re being welcomed, in a way that makes you feel happy.” Williams adds that although the building ”may feel massive on the outside, it needs to feel light on the inside”; brightness will be important, expressing ”a vibrancy that says something’s alive here.”

A key difference between the Exeter commission and other performing arts centers the firm has designed is the age of its major users, teenagers, and the need to encourage curiosity, experimentation and imagination, even in students who may not be involved in theater or dance programs. ”This means that things need to be simpler,” Williams says. ”They need to indicate all the aspirations that anyone would have academically, intellectually or physically, but they need to be user friendly. That’s a terrific challenge — something we really relish.”

”The issue of curiosity will be terribly important,” he adds. ”You want to stimulate curiosity. At the same time you need to create a private space to express yourself. To take risks. To succeed and fail. To fail and succeed. These are principles that are so deeply embedded in the best schools. They’re ones that we all should be addressing, and that we should address with whatever program we have.” Social spaces will ”make this a memorable and connective experience, so that it’s not only what happens when you’re in the theater, but also what happens when you’re outside the theater,” Tsien says. The building’s ”sense of openness,” she adds, will encourage all students to ”feel welcome and invited in to participate or observe.”

The center, which will be constructed on Court Street where the tennis courts now sit, will connect the south side of campus — primarily athletics, housing, fields and woods — with the north side, home to six of Exeter’s eight academic buildings. ”There’s a very strong divide today between the two halves of the campus: the academic buildings feel settled and more traditional and the athletic feel rather brutal,” says Williams, who feels the need to bridge this ”problematic disjunction” without ”parroting either one” using both building and landscape design. The concept of a gateway ”is a natural requirement of this building,” he adds, but one that should not be overemphasized. ”It’s important to celebrate this as a building, as a place and as an activity.”

Delighted to be working in the ”shadow of a giant like Kahn,” Williams freely acknowledges that architecture requires an awareness of the environment and efficiencies that did not exist when Kahn designed the Academy Library: ”Buildings that are more efficient than we could have imagined even 10 years ago are requirements. . . . We want to make sure that any requirements are adhered to so that the building is not a burden, that it’s an exemplar of the kind of building that one should build today and in the future.”

The architects are looking forward to ”embarking on a wonderful adventure,” says Tsien, which will include visits to campus, gathering input from theater and dance faculty, meeting students, watching performances, and exploring the new building’s site and the broader campus and town.