Don’t let the hole in the ground fool you. A real drama is underway at the corner of Racine and Fullerton. Six months after groundbreaking, the opening act of DePaul’s new Theater Building is well underway. Heavy machinery guided by men with orange vests move the earth, pour concrete and lay pipes as they transform a parking lot into a modern arts facility.
The architect of this play is Cesar Pelli, the former dean of the School of Architecture at Yale University with a portfolio full of notable international projects. DePaul has made an unusual move selecting someone as creative as Pelli for the commission. After a ripe opportunity for architectural expression like the Art Museum was used to build another conservative, uninspired building, expectations are modest. Yet even DePaul realizes that to be attractive to prospective students, it needs compelling architecture.
With a spectrum of space from a 250 seat theater to an intimate design studio, the modern facility is sure to energize DePaul’s theater and music programs, which have been outperforming their dated buildings for years. DePaul and Pelli have emphasized the design’s integration into its environment, with plenty of glass for transparency, allowing the passerby to get a glimpse of artistic production. The campus and the Lincoln Park neighborhood will benefit from the creative work that will transpire inside these walls.
Unfortunately, the exterior leaves something to be desired. Although the building plays with cantilevered planes and geometric shapes, it is all rather subdued. The building appears heavy and stocky with the risk of being overshadowed by the adjacent Loft Right. A major focal point in the renderings is an illuminated glass façade on Fullerton Ave, but won’t this element be largely irrelevant during the day?
Finally, the tasteless electronic news ticker above the corner entrance, can cheapen the integrity of the project associated with conservatory arts.
A lot remains to be seen before the construction workers are replaced with actors. The new Theater School is not set to open until March 2013.
For a little more background, here is the press release DePaul University sent out last year about its new theater building:
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CHICAGO – The Theatre School at DePaul will break ground June 1 for a new home – a 165,000 square-foot multipurpose facility designed by internationally renowned architectural firm Pelli Clarke Pelli.
Founded in 1977 and led by Cesar Pelli, Fred Clarke, and Rafael Pelli, Pelli Clarke Pelli Architects has designed some of the world’s most recognizable buildings, including the Petronas Towers in Malaysia, the World Financial Center in New York and the International Finance Centre in Hong Kong. The firm has a strong portfolio of performing arts centers affiliated with universities, including those at Vassar College, Grinnell College and the University of Minnesota. Pelli Clarke Pelli was one of seven firms asked to submit designs for the building.
As yet unnamed and with a tentative price tag of $69 million, the airy, five-story building is designed to showcase the varied and dynamic activities that characterize the school, its students and faculty. It will house a 250-seat theatre, a flexible 100-seat black-box theatre as well as administrative and faculty offices, classrooms, rehearsal spaces, design studios, workshops and the school’s script library. The flexible theatre will be named for longtime DePaul supporters Sondra Healy (a 1964 alumna of the Goodman School) and her husband, Denis.
The structure will be located on the southwest corner of West Fullerton and North Racine avenues and serve as the western gateway to the university’s Lincoln Park Campus.
DePaul announced its intention to build a new Theatre School facility – as well as new and renovated facilities for its School of Music – in fall 2009. Funds for the buildings’ construction will be raised in part through the Many Dreams, One Mission Campaign for DePaul University, a $250 million effort which was announced in spring 2010.
“These facilities represent history in the making,” said DePaul’s president, the Rev. Dennis H. Holtschneider, C.M. “For the first time, The Theatre School and the School of Music will be housed in facilities that are specifically designed to serve the work and artistry of our students, faculty and staff.”
DePaul’s theatre and music schools both are ranked among the country’s top conservatory-style programs in their respective disciplines, despite having been housed in inadequate facilities for decades.
According to John Culbert, dean of The Theatre School at DePaul University, the new facilities were specifically designed to support, engage and share the work of theatre artists with the DePaul community, the Lincoln Park community and the city of Chicago.
“The people in our audiences are not just spectators,” he said. “They become part of the training process for actors, designers, stage managers, directors – everyone who is part the performance.” He adds that the idea of engaging the audience in such a way is facilitated by the building’s design.
“The Pelli concept takes a very sophisticated approach to organizing the pieces of the building so that it engages and energizes the entire Theatre School community,” Culbert explains. “When you attend a performance at the new building, you won’t just step off the street into the theatre. You will actually journey through the school, see its inner workings, be immersed in an experience not available anywhere else in Chicago.”
Many of those inner workings will be visible from the street too, he continues, noting that pedestrians will have clear views into the scene-building, painting and other usually “behind-the-scenes” workshops that make every theatrical performance tick.
The Theatre School stages 10 productions of contemporary and classic works each year – at little or no cost to the public – at various venues. The school’s Chicago Playworks for Families and Young Audiences Series also presents three unique productions each season to more than 30,000 theatre lovers of all ages at DePaul’s historic Merle Reskin Theatre in the South Loop. Additional performances occur throughout the season at various levels of production, housed in The Theatre School’s current facilities in Lincoln Park. (The new Pelli-designed theatre building’s Merle and Harold Reskin Lobby is named for the longtime Theatre School supporter and her late husband.)
DePaul’s new music school complex will be constructed along the west side of North Halsted Street between Fullerton and Belden avenues. A new Music Center building will anchor the complex, housing the 550-seat William E. Hay and Mary Pat Gannon Hay Concert Hall, a large 150-seat recital hall and a smaller 80-seat recital hall. The current music administration building will be substantially renovated and will continue to serve as the school’s administrative hub, housing offices, classrooms and teaching studios on its existing three levels. The chapel, currently used as the concert hall, will be substantially renovated to accommodate an opera hall.
The largest fundraising effort in DePaul’s history, the Many Dreams, One Mission campaign, seeks $100 million in new scholarships as well as an additional $150 million for facilities, faculty and programs. The campaign, which has already raised some $200 million, is expected to conclude in June 2014.