In leafy Oberlin, ohio, the central Tappan Square is dominated by the town’s namesake college—an example of a town-gown relationship that can’t be ignored. The well-regarded liberal arts school provides lots of architectural interest, with notable buildings by architects ranging in era from Cass Gilbert to William McDonough. “Oberlin is branded by innovation,” says Paul E. Westlake Jr., principal-in-charge of Cleveland-based architecture firm Westlake Reed Leskosky. It was the first American college to regularly admit female and black students, and today it’s positioning itself as number one in green building, having established LEED Silver as the minimum standard for new buildings on campus. “They make sustainable design a challenge to all their designers,” Westlake says of college leaders.

The world-renowned Oberlin Conservatory of Music occupies a corner off Tappan Square. Minoru Yamasaki—best known for the World Trade Center’s towers—designed the original 1963 buildings; his low-scale complex is a series of indoor and outdoor spaces defined by the architect’s signature narrow, pointed arches, rendered in white precast concrete. Westlake Reed Leskosky has added its new Bertram and Judith Kohl Building to the Yamasaki original. The bar-shaped structure attaches to the old complex via a vertical circulation tower and third-story bridge. The building is situated between a parking lot to the east and the Yamasaki complex to the west.

The architects planned the building to create a north-south axis. Accessed from Tappan Square to the north, students proceed through a plaza between the old and new structures, and an exterior stair moves up the Kohl building façade and terminates the axis in another green space: a third-story roof garden. “We wanted to redirect the energy,” project designer Jonathan C. Kurtz says. “It’s a dense, urban landscape—where the rest of the campus is more bucolic.” David H. Stull, dean of the conservatory, notes that the addition’s location behind the Yamasaki complex “isn’t where you’d [choose to] put it—it doesn’t have any street frontage.”

Stull isn’t a big fan of the Yamasaki buildings—although the architect “brought natural light into all the spaces through courtyards and windows”—a strategy Stull and the Westlake Reed Leskosky architects tried to reprise. “We wanted to bring nature into the building,” Kurtz says. The team was able to accomplish this through several primary moves. First, the building’s narrow footprint allows ample daylighting in all spaces. Second, a central “terrarium” on the third floor brings light and colorful winter-blooming flowers into the public spaces and adjacent faculty lounge. Third, the south roof garden is always open to the public.

The 37,000-square-foot addition is three stories tall, plus a basement, and houses the jazz studies department. Other facilities include a recording studio, rehearsal and performance spaces, teaching studios, practice rooms, and archives. The building’s program is stacked in a way that makes sensible use of the material mass necessary to acoustically isolate each of these spaces. The ground floor has percussion practice rooms and rehearsal studios that require the densest construction. Standard practice rooms, needing slightly less dense construction, are on the second floor, and offices—the closest the Kohl Building gets to conventional construction—are on the third floor.

While spaces focused on individual students are private and isolated, the public spaces encourage interaction. “We wanted to create unplanned social learning environments,” Kurtz says. Sometimes this is as simple as a bench in the corner of a corridor; other times it’s more elaborate, like the stairs that rise in unison from the ground floor to the third level, both inside and outside.

“The influence of jazz on the building is interesting,” Stull says. “The windows on the east façade are syncopated and the color of the anodized aluminum changes. It’s improvisational.” Paul Westlake has a more straightforward way to describe the intended excitement. “We wanted to design the place where the lights go out last,” he says. In the Kohl Building, they have.

Project The Bertram and Judith Kohl Building, Oberlin, Ohio

Client Oberlin College

Architect, Interior Designer and M/E/P and Structural Engineer Westlake Reed Leskosky, Cleveland—Paul E. Westlake Jr. (managing principal, principal-in-charge); Jonathan C. Kurtz (associate, project designer); Rhonda Hansal (associate, project director); Lyle Satterlee (construction administration); Raymond Kent (associate, theatrical consultant); Matthew J. Murphy (lead mechanical engineer); Megan Blank (mechanical project engineer); Stephanie Banfield (associate, lead structural engineer); Robert J. Smolinski (associate principal, lead electrical engineer); Carmen Mazzant (electrical project engineer)

Civil Engineer KS Associates, Elyria, Ohio—Jeff Keefe

General Contractor Krill Construction, Cleveland—Doug Fishback

Landscape Architect GroundView, Somerville, Mass.—Wilson Martin

Acoustic Consultant Kirkegaard Acoustic Design, Chicago—Dana Kirkegaard

Cost Estimator Project and Construction Services, Cleveland

Size 37,000 square feet

Construction Cost $15.5 million

Project Cost $24 million

Materials and Sources

Acoustical System RPG Diffuser System (panels and diffractals); Mason Industries (hardware)

Carpet Lees Carpetsl

Ceilings Knauf Drywall (MP75 Projection Plaster);

Coatings and Sealants L&M Construction Chemicals;

Concrete Akron Concrete Corp.; Pompili Precast Concrete; Mack

Exterior Wall Systems Riverside Group (fabricator);

Fabrics Knoll Textiles; Maharam;


Gypsum National Gypsum; Acme Arsena Co. (contractor)

HVAC Reliance Mechanical; Mammoth (ground-source heat pumps);
 Munters Corp. (energy recovery ventilator)

Insulation Fibrex Inc.; Owens Corning; Acme Arsena (contractor)

Lighting Control Systems Lutron Electronics Co. (EcoSystem, SoftSwitch 128)

Lighting Strand Lighting; Bega; Color Kinetics; The Lighting Quotient ( Elliptipar); GVA Lighting; Ledalite; Litelab; Metalux by Cooper Lighting; Neoray by Cooper Lighting; Rambusch; Selux

Masonry and Stone Grand Blanc CMU; VIP (contractor)

Paints and Coatings PPG Industries

Renewables Middleton Geothermal

Seating Wenger Corp.; Allermuir; Steelcase; Davis

Site and Landscape Products Hanover Architectural Products; American

Structural System D&J Structural Contract ; Thomas

Walls Dietrich Metal Framing; Acme Arsena (contractor)
Windows, Curtain Walls, and Doors