The new DePaul University Theatre School Building (2350 North Racine Avenue), designed by Pelli Clark Pelli, celebrated its grand opening on Friday and I was privileged to be there for a private tour. The tour was led by the dean of the Theatre School, John Culbert, as well as members of the theater design firm that worked with Pelli, Schuler Shook. Toward the end of our tour, three members of the architectural team joined us.
I usually write about older buildings in Chicago, so this was something novel for me to explore a brand new structure. But as I toured the building and learned what went into its design and execution, I could only think of an old architectural idea: Louis Sullivan’s dictum, “form ever follows function.”
The Theatre School, the architects, and the designers came together to create a structure that beautifully fulfills its many functions. When I asked the architects to identify their greatest design challenge, they replied that it was the need to fit the many functions and features into the modest-sized site and 90-foot-tall height restriction.
The building’s exterior is contemporary with its expanses of glass and limestone, but it is so much more than a monotonous, modern box. Its shape and transparency are intriguing and inviting. Passersby are drawn to the activity they can see within. It fulfills its function as the western gateway to DePaul’s campus and as sign of the Theatre School’s vitality.
It is meant to be a place for public performance, but one which doesn’t allow visitors to forget that it is also a place for learning. The first floor lobby signals it clearly: while it looks and feels like a public theater lobby, all about are student study and gathering areas. This is continued throughout the entire school. While audiences make their way to one of the two main theaters, they may walk past classrooms, rehearsal rooms, and workshops, and see education in action. While pedestrians walk past the school, they may see a play in rehearsal or scenery being built.
This idea of interaction is exuberantly celebrated throughout. Not only the interaction of students with the public, but the interaction of all the different aspects of theater production. The rooms are not segregated by type: rehearsal spaces, movement rooms, workshops, studios, classrooms, student lounges, storage areas, conference rooms, offices, and the two theaters are all mixed up together. The arrangement of the spaces was intentionally designed to be non-linear and a tad confusing— to encourage creativity.
Yet the placement of many of the rooms was done with great forethought into the processes involved. Therefore, the huge scenery workshops are on the main floor (easy to receive deliveries there) and all aspects of construction are brought together. Super large doorways lead out from the workshops to the 250-seat Fullerton Stage — the better to facilitate the transport of tall pieces of scenery. One of the tall doorways is intersected by a delightful little orange drawbridge that serves as a pedestrian walkway, yet opens up for scenery coming through!
The roomy and state-of-the-art costume workshop is on an upper floor, the better to take advantage of natural light. The make-up studio was designed with every amenity, including studio lighting to simulate the lights of the production, the better to accurately apply stage make up.
A unique part of the design is the 100-seat Sondra and Denis Healy Theatre, a black box space on the fourth floor. Not only does its glass northern wall project boldly over Fullerton Avenue, but when productions take place inside, the glow of lights and the actors’ movements are visible to the outside. Having a theater on an upper floor necessitated the installation of an industrial-sized elevator to bring the scenery up. It’s large enough that there is already talk of using the huge elevator as performance space!
And this potential of using spaces in a multitude of ways is another distinctive characteristic of the building’s design. Most rooms are capable of being used as performance space; many of them have a lighting grid on the ceiling and light-blocking shades at the windows— ready for anything. Even the main staircase—glowing yellow in its glassy stairwell—is fitted with theater lighting.
Glass is everywhere: in skylights, as partitions, and as floor-to-ceiling windows. The concept of transparency is made (um) very clear. The main conference room was situated for what has to be one of the most outstanding vantage points in the entire city: its south windows provide a breathtaking view of the skyline.
Exuberant color and playful use of word designs fill the building. A skylit student lounge is filled with colorful, modern furniture. There is an undeniable energy in the building’s design – and now, as students fill it, energy also within its walls. Walking through the school, we witnessed many students moving through the hallways, working in the shops, going to their lockers, conversing animatedly.
Dean Culbert explained how the old building lacked much (space, flexibility, air conditioning, elevators), but that the “controlled chaos” there added to the energy and creativity. They wanted to be sure and foster that same exuberance in the new building. And, by all accounts, they have succeeded. It is no sterile space by any means; signs of creative life are all around. DePaul’s theater students have settled into their high-functioning, progressively-designed new building as if they’d been there all along.