Text by Mark Lamster
Among the notable design elements that give an air of distinction to the Greenhill School, an elite preparatory academy in the North Dallas suburb of Addison, are the peacocks—peafowl, if you want to get technical about it—that wander its sprawling campus, unhindered. These colorful pheasants have a tendency to upstage the school’s architecture, which includes an 1855 farmhouse and new works by the likes of Gwathmey Siegel Kaufman Architects, Lake|Flato, and the pioneering Texas modernist O’Neil Ford.
The newest addition to this collection, the $26.5 million Marshall Family Performing Arts Center, is not likely to be overshadowed by birds, however resplendent. Designed by New York–based architects Weiss/Manfredi Architecture/Landscape/Urbanism, the 65,000-square-foot building at once hugs the landscape and cantilevers out dramatically from it, toward the center of the Greenhill campus. “One of the objects was to shape the building so the campus moves up and into the building, and the building frames views out onto the campus,” says co-founder Michael Manfredi, FAIA.
The center stands as a considerable improvement over the school’s previous performance facilities, a fact of which, as a Greenhill parent, I am well aware. Though Greenhill has an impressive architectural patrimony, quality theatrical space was sorely lacking. That will no longer be a problem. Within the Marshall Center is a 600-seat proscenium theater with a cherry wood-paneled interior and chairs upholstered in desert orange, a 150-seat studio or “black box” theater with open rigging, and a dance studio with glazed end walls and a sprung floor that would impress Baryshnikov.
“The performing arts center as a program is just about the most extraordinary thing you can engage in as an architect, because it’s about creating a framework that’s technically supported for magic to occur,” says co-founder Marion Weiss, FAIA.
The architects, too, contributed their own little bit of enchantment, not least by convincing the school administration to shift the site of the building from a peripheral space to one on axis with the campus center, thereby knitting it into the fabric of the school community. “One of the things we most admired about Greenhill is the syncopation between open spaces and buildings,” Manfredi says. “It’s pretty rare to find a school where the two are so well calibrated. By setting the center a little closer to these roots we could create a new gateway to this campus.”
The move also allowed the design team to develop a relationship between its building and a stand of mature oak trees planted before O’Neil Ford’s 1969 Montgomery Library, the school’s most distinguished work of architecture. Ford’s beige-brick library, with its exquisite terra-cotta details designed by his brother and collaborator Lynn, was an inspiration to Manfredi and Weiss: “The O’Neil Ford buildings have an incredible balance between gravity-bound brick and a contemporary transparency and openness,” Weiss says.
That found expression in the very form of the building—“kind of like an earthwork,” Weiss says—and in its light-filled double-height lobby, defined by a wall of glass fritted in a piano-key pattern. “We’ve been really interested in the idea of the presence of glass, rather than the invisibility of glass,” Weiss says. “In this case, where we have a west-facing lobby, we wanted a screened layering system that could protect the interior from the strong sunlight but also be an expression of the artful craft that we saw in the Ford buildings.”
The architects’ original intention was, in fact, not to have one single lobby, but three—one for each of the performance spaces—set along a curving gallery fronting a landscaped plaza. But the cost of that plan proved to be prohibitive, and just as well, for it forced the architects to condense their vision into a single, charged space defined vertically—or sectionally—rather than horizontally. This allowed them to place gathering areas on two levels, connected by a central steel staircase, which is painted in striking white and animated by a pattern of rectangular punctures.
The benefits of this arrangement are both formal and social. “By entering one lobby, you could begin to see all the performing arts,” says Manfredi. “We like those cultural frictions, that sense that you would have to rub shoulders with different performers in the different arts venues. Someone at Greenhill called these ‘collaborative collisions.’ In the course of learning to perform a Shakespearean play, you might see someone performing in a dance recital.”
This sense of infrastructurally driven communal interaction is a defining characteristic of Weiss/Manfredi’s work, as evident in their most prominent projects, in particular the zig-zagging Olympic Sculpture Park in Seattle that opened in 2007. “We’ve been super-interested in this idea of topographies as opportunities to create social interaction and offhand connections,” Weiss says. “This project is a high-performing interior landscape.”
And in Texas, where school systems can spend tens of millions of dollars on football stadiums, the very idea of devoting resources, let alone equivalent resources, to the arts is something to celebrate. “We were struck by the fact that arts were perceived as an element that was as important as other disciplines—science, mathematics,” Manfredi says. “That was something that struck us in a very physical way.”
Project: Marshall Family Performing Arts Center, Addison, Texas
Client: Greenhill School
Design Architect: Weiss/Manfredi Architecture/Landscape/Urbanism, New York . Michael A. Manfredi, FAIA, Marion Weiss, FAIA (design partners); Armando Petruccelli (project manager); Justin Kwok, Andrew Ruggles, Paúl Duston-Muñoz (project architects); Mateo Antonio de Cárdenas, Patrick Armacost, Michael Blasberg, Pierre Hoppenot, Julia Schubach, Seungwon Song, Hanul Kim (project team)
Associate Architect and M/E/P/FP: Page, Dallas . Milton Powell, AIA (team leader); Richard C. Robinson, AIA (project manager); Annelie Persson Call, AIA, Will Butler, Joe Cruz (project team)
Structural Engineer: Magnusson Klemencic Associates
Theater Planning Consultant: Fisher Dachs Associates
Acoustical/Audiovisual Consultant: Jaffe Holden
Lighting Designer: Tillotson Design Associates
Civil Engineer/Landscape: Pacheco Koch
Code Consultant: Code Consultants
Food Service Consultant: James N. Davella Consulting
Telecommunications Consultant: Datacom Design Group
Contractor: Andres Construction Services
Size: 65,000 square feet
Cost: $26.5 million