Arts : Redeeming Northrup

The Urban Geographer - charting architecture, design, and liveablilty

You really have to credit Kell-Muñoz for getting back to the drafting table after associating with Robert A. M. Stern, the lead architect on Trinity’s less-than-spectacular Northrup Administration Building. They’ve returned to the campus to redesign the Ruth Taylor Fine Arts Center, using in-house talent this time around.

The building, dedicated last Thursday, houses the consolidated and reorganized departments of art and music, which resided previously in adjacent and distinct buildings. In this new incarnation, the two facilities have been brought under one roof, creating an atmosphere where accidental intermingling is more likely. Although Trinity isn’t exactly Black Mountain College in its heyday, I can imagine a future with impromptu gatherings of music and art students in the RTFAC’s common areas.

What wonderful spaces! A walk through the building is an opportunity to appreciate the variety of inventive space-making and contextual connections. The architects were fortunate to have to design within the confines of existing structures and large trees. (Sometimes the tolerances were so tight that adjustments could only be made onsite during construction.) What they did with this opportunity shows genuine sensitivity to preexisting conditions and firm grounding in aesthetic principles.

The most notable aspect of the design is how naturally the building fits its surroundings. Sometimes new architecture feels intrusive, the connections evoking a botched job on the operating table. But in this case, there is a sense of organic growth, both internally and contextually.

This was achieved several ways, but the building’s transparency is probably the main one. Windows of all types and sizes frame long and short views in every direction. Sometimes, views focus on a feature of adjacent architecture. Other times, the fenestration frames a larger landscape perfectly. One thinks of the Japanese and how they do this almost effortlessly, but here is ample evidence that they do not monopolize this expertise.

One of my favorite “quirks” occurs on the second floor. Three small, square windows face the brick wall of the recital hall a few feet away. A fourth window frames a longer view of its side. Is this a mistake? Hardly. In less capable hands, there’d be no gap between these buildings. This wall would be uneventful, with new construction right up on the older building. Instead, the articulated void creates rich layering while allowing in natural light.

Directly below, in the lobby, additional lighting is handled just as thoughtfully. Eastern light infuses the gallery theatrically, as in a Bernini chapel. Opposite, intense southern light is moderated by deep overhangs. In this direction, the cropped view of adjacent Coates Center and Northrup hardly seems accidental. This visual link suggests that lighting, sight lines, and contextual cues are manipulated, like props in a museum diorama. Throughout the building, connections with context look like deliberate choices. Generally the building’s solids and voids create these orchestrated alignments.

Numerous tasty offerings on the architectural menu demonstrate the architects’ good contractor relations and insistence upon quality. Such is the concrete work. New column surfaces look and feel like fine travertine. The concrete band on the exterior elevations forms a continuous base that outshines the structural oxymoron of Northrup’s rough-but-thin limestone veneer. Even the soffits of upper floors look finished. (Plastic laminate sheets were used to form these smooth surfaces.)

The building works. Its functionality is satisfying to its tenants and helpful to visitors. Strong wayfinding cues are built into its efficient layout, promoting easy orientation. With such clear indicators, only the spatially illiterate could conceivably get lost in this building. The range of differentiation, from obvious to subtle, provides good sensory cues. For example, each level in the Dicke Art Building has its own signature. The ceilings look different on each corridor level: one the underside of a concrete slab, the other two exposed web joists and a saw-tooth clerestory. On each level, a unique quality of light signals your position relative to the large live oaks outside.

In the Smith Music Building, the stairwells’ large openings face different courtyard areas. Each courtyard view provides reassurance of a still-salvageable world. Slightly reconfigured (extended), these landings would be perfect places to share a quiet moment with a special person or book, or to pray for the advancement of all sentient beings. (We all need more time and better places for such things.)

I’ve yet to mention the three-story atrium or the single-column entry device. (That’s another full-length discussion for later.) I’ll just say that they create a trapezoidal unity that injects wonderful spatial complexity into the x-y-z, while simultaneously opening up and integrating the building.

Please, I urge you, take your own tour and make your own assessment. Just keep your eyes open.

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