All the wood’s a stage – Studio Gang’s Writers Theatre

Intimacy with the performance was the driving design objective with this space. The artistic director and co-founder is Michael Halberstam (Nottingham-born, which probably explains why this is 'theatre' rather than 'theater'), and he insisted on intimacy. Three banks of seats draw around a thrust stage, bringing the performance virtually into the audience.

Two tribunes are placed in the lobby, creating a third but less formal performance space. Photo: Steve Hall © Hedrich Blessing
Two tribunes are placed in the lobby, creating a third but less formal performance space. Photo: Steve Hall © Hedrich Blessing

The spatial strategy brings to mind Hans Scharoun's pioneering Berlin Philharmonie (1963), but Gang talks rather of the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis opened the same year, designed by Ralph Rapson and its thrust stage by Tanya Moiseiwitsch A Guthrie designed by Jean Nouvel has since replaced it.

From the lobby, a wood-clad corridor extends, lined with books and with windows on one side, half-suggesting a colonnade. It leads to the smaller, 99-capacity performance space, fittingly referred to as the Black Box Theatre. This is a more experimental space within black hanging panels that can be moved to make it smaller. A rehearsal room by the lobby potentially offers yet another performance space. And there is also a room for Writers Theatre's donors (in Europe, that would be the Members' Room).

First Floor
First Floor

The exterior around and behind the lobby and gallery are of wood or concrete, according to the different volumes that form the whole. The rectangular site fits snuggly into parkland but faces the town, and a corner is left as open green space beside the lobby. Jeanne Gang says Glencoe 'needed more pedestrian activities, people to walk and get out of their cars, and something that would activate the park and the streetscape'. This theatre in the park, by also speaking to the townscape, does just that.

Studio Gang includes the Writers Theatre among its 'bird-friendly' projects. Gang herself may seem bird-obsessed - the unbuilt Ford Calumet Environmental Center for a nature reserve took nest-making as its model. It included open observation decks that shared the openness and tensile screens of the Writers Theatre, although not with wooden batons. Birds are a serious issue when a billion are killed annually by buildings in the USA. 'In cities by water we have migratory birds. We have to understand how birds see,' says Gang. 'We have to think about our biodiversity.' Studio Gang's most famous project yet, the 262m-high, 84-storey Aqua Tower (2010), put the practice at the top level of those defining Chicago's exhilarating skyline, along with the likes of SOM and Adrian Smith - but it was also the first bird-friendly skyscraper.

The Gallery Walk cantilevers from the entrance volume. The ‘cat’s paw’ joinery of its batons is visible. Photo: Steve Hall © Hedrich Blessing
The Gallery Walk cantilevers from the entrance volume. The 'cat's paw' joinery of its batons is visible. Photo: Steve Hall © Hedrich Blessing

As for wood, the USA has begun to follow Europe and Japan in bringing it into contemporary architecture. The reappraisal of this ancient building medium was boosted by its appearance at the 2015 Chicago Architectural Biennial with Ultramoderne's low and exposed Miesian lakeside canopy, and David Adjaye's contemplative Horizons installation at his show at the Chicago Art Institute. 'I like working with wood,' says Gang.

The way light shines through the gallery at night has been compared to a lantern. Photo: Steve Hall © Hedrich Blessing
The way light shines through the gallery at night has been compared to a lantern. Photo: Steve Hall © Hedrich Blessing

'It embodies carbon, it looks rustic.' Along with her starting point of research and effort to reach out to communities (whether human or avian), she says that one of the common threads in her work is that 'I try to bring out the quality of the material'. At the Writers Theatre, the Gallery Walk brings it out from the building. The achievement should be marvelled at far beyond Glencoe.

Jeanne Gang

Jeanne Gang

Studio Gang principal and founder Jeanne Gang talked with Herbert Wright about wood, Writers Theatre... and what's coming up in New York.

Blueprint: Has the USA been slow to take up wood as a contemporary construction material, compared to Europe and Japan?

JG: We probably have more wooden structures in this country than anywhere else on the planet. There was huge progress early on, with ideas like the balloon frame and that kind of construction, especially in Chicago where that was developed.

The steel industry came along and because it's located in places like Chicago and the Midwest that became such a dominant mode of building, because it was made right here. I've always been a huge fan of wood because of its renewable qualities, the fact that it is so good in texture, and the possibilities.

When we started to introduce wood in structures, it was challenging because the [building] codes don't even allow for it any more, except in certain residential constructions... It was hard to get the data for structures, so we were forced to prove in tests that the wood could actually perform.

Bengt Sjostrom Theatre in Rockford
2003 - The Bengt Sjostrom Theatre in Rockford, Illinois has a roof that opens like an origami piece

Blueprint: Why was the Port Orford cedar chosen at the Writers Theatre?

JG: It's structural and performance-driven because Port Orford cedar has good resistance to rot and it weathers; you don't have to seal in any way.

There's very few knots, it has good structural qualities and it's long-lasting.

Blueprint: It was American-sourced, but some embedded energy is from transporting it...

JG: Not only that, but there are many industrial processes that go into it. [But] it was low-carbon.

With the Arcus Center, Kalamazoo College [Michigan] that we did last year, we figured that [wood] took more carbon out of the atmosphere than it put in. A tree is always absorbing carbon in its lifetime, and in this particular application, very little work is done to the wood - it dries naturally - and we put it directly into the wall. It was abundant and nearby. It was white cedar.

Aqua Tower
2010 - Chicago's sublimely terraced Aqua Tower is the first bird-friendly skyscraper. Studio Gang's Vista Tower will soon rise nearby. Photo: Steve Hall © Hedrich Blessing

Blueprint: How did the Writers Theatre approach the issue of audience intimacy?

JG: The 99-seat space is really a black box, and the intimacy is however you decide to stage that particular space. Where we really designed in the intimacy was in the 250-seat space. In the old theatre, people sat literally with their feet on the stage, and they felt so connected to the performers.

The artistic director Michael Halberstam really wanted to maintain that; it was crucial to the success of the product to maintain intimacy.

Blueprint: Did any other theatre spaces inform your thinking about the Writers Theatre?

JG: Yes, the thrust stage. The first one was really the Guthrie [Theater, Minneapolis] and that's a touchstone. But of course we wanted to make it more particular to the Writers Theatre, so the dimensions are a lot smaller. It allows the performance to be three-dimensional.

In terms of connecting to the community, Michael Halbersam and I were thinking of the Old Vic in London. It has a new library and cafe and people really use it as a gathering space. We wanted to capture that kind of energy at Writers. We would be calling each other from all over the world during the design process.

We did a full-scale mock-up using string and tape in this gymnasium that we borrowed for the day. That was pivotal, because we ended up shortening the tongue of thrust after that.

The Arcus Center for Social Justice Leadership at Kalamazoo College
2014 - The Arcus Center for Social Justice Leadership at Kalamazoo College in Michigan has carbon-negative Walls. Photo: Steve Hall © Hedrich Blessing

Blueprint: Blueprint covered your Bengt Sjostrom Starlight Theatre in 2003. Did anything echo down the years from it to the Writers Theatre?

JG: The thing that I feel strongly about the Starlight Theatre is the connection to the community. They needed something that would create a regional draw and something spectacular. It's a very car-orientated condition there, the people needed something to bring them together, to create community life. Live performance is perfect for that. We wanted the theatre to be a draw in itself.

The roof opens up kinetically. People still come out early to see the roof open, then the director closes it when they begin the performance. So when I was doing the Writers Theatre I tried to understand the community and what was needed there.

Blueprint: What up-coming Studio Gang project is exciting you most?

JG: Well, I'm excited about all of our projects! The project with so many dimensions to it is the Gilder Center for Science and Education at the American Museum of Natural History [in New York]. It's fascinating because it's a campus of 25 existing buildings - some historic, some not - where we're iterating a new wing into the campus, but at the same time clarifying the circulation. It also connects with nature and science and art and education.

The Gilder Center at New York’s Museum of Natural History
The shape of things to come - The Gilder Center at New York's Museum of Natural History, like the Aqua Tower, has forms inspired by geology.

Blueprint: Will we see a Studio Gang project in Europe, maybe even the UK?

JG: I certainly hope so! Some of our work connects with nature in urban areas, and we've been doing tall buildings and buildings that are sensitive to their site. London being at the forefront, it would be the perfect place to do something.


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