Project DescriptionLocated on Midlands Technical College’s Harbison Campus, in a quiet suburban Columbia, SC neighborhood, this 400-seat theater and classroom building threatened to dwarf its surroundings. The unusual site in which this project is set was donated to the college in 1978 and was comprised entirely of residential scale masonry buildings constructed prior to 1955, under a canopy of pines. This building was therefore the first to be built in 50 years on a quiet satellite campus in delicate, intimate balance with surrounding neighborhoods.
Simultaneously presenting a one-story façade to the neighbors and a monumental façade to the public, exterior massing was further articulated through a composition of stucco and campus-standard masonry. Rich color was introduced in otherwise simple, economical interiors to denote theater-related functions.
Concerned with neighbors’ reactions, the college had originally designated an internal campus site for the building that was difficult to access, topographically awkward, with no public presence. By developing preliminary massing studies, however, WTS convinced the college that the building, which was to be shared with the community, could be placed more appropriately at the campus entry.
By integrating the theater rake into an existing slope, and arranging classrooms and theater support around the 5-story fly loft, it was possible to not only eliminate any negative impact on adjacent homes but to actually enhance the neighborhood by providing a sorely missing “gateway” to the campus, taking advantage of existing topography to soften and modulate the building’s massing and comparatively enormous footprint.
Once established at the front of campus, massing was further refined. Simple rectilinear geometries were developed to simultaneously establish presence while maintaining understatement. Campus standard masonry was utilized in deference to existing structures, and stucco was introduced, in counterpoint to masonry, to further articulate and lighten massing.
Because the program included two completely separate functions – a theater and classrooms – it was also necessary to design it with access to each function separately while sharing restrooms and vertical circulation. The resulting plan allows for the theater to be in use with the classroom wing closed to the public and vice versa. Primary entries to each function are also expressed at opposite corners of the building, with a monumental theater lobby facing public parking and a smaller classroom entry facing the campus loop.
Anticipating a wide range of audiences, including, periodically, very small ones, and addressing a need for a flexible performance format, the design team proposed a “modified thrust” theater, the first such theater to be built in the region. As a hybrid, this configuration, partially wrapping seats around a partially thrust stage, provides intimate settings for both larger and smaller audiences.
A deep color palette further reinforces the sense of intimacy, with seating composed in a pixilated pattern of the colors found throughout the theater house. This color palette then extends to the theater lobby, with a curved terra cotta wall demarking the rear of the theater house. In contrast, the lobby itself is expressed in a cooler, neutral palette to serve as a gallery of archival photographs, telling the story of a small post-Construction African American college that once occupied the site a century before.