Greg Mooney

Performative Millwork: the Alliance Theatre

For the renovation of Atlanta’s Tony Award– winning Alliance Theatre—the first significant update since its founding in 1968—the design team found inspiration for a grand gesture in the work of artist Matthias Pliessnig, whose lattice-work benches made from reclaimed wood are a testament to form and physics. Working hand-in-hand, the trio of architect, artist, and fabricator upended the traditional linear project delivery process to highlight the artistry of handcrafted steam-bent solid oak pieces.

To develop a database of material behaviors, the curvatures it could achieve, and different acoustic strategies, the team leveraged a series of 1:1 mock-ups.

Achievement of the end design, a synthesis of acoustic and aesthetic ideals, required a new workflow that married handcrafted techniques with augmented reality. For the more than 100,000 linear feet of millwork slat centerlines, Trahan Architects developed new scripting techniques to provide layouts to fabricator CW Keller. The layouts all merged the artist’s requirements—minimum spacing, profile shape, and more—with insights from the acoustician. The new process that emerged allowed CW Keller to bring laser scanning and projection to the site and assist with the installation of the complex assemblies.

Delivered at $350 per square foot, the theater’s guardrails and balconies prove that complex, hand-driven artistry can be completed without the need for wasteful CNC templates. As economical as it is beautiful, the millwork also challenges historic notions of racial segregation by removing the buffer between balcony and orchestra seating and encourages a venue for community building and creative exchange.

Overhaul the Curriculum, Not Just a Course

After recognizing that much of the work created by students in the University of Tennessee’s architecture program did not reflect many of the concepts learned in other materials and technology courses, the faculty suggested a major overhaul of the school’s B.Arch. program. The school has long had a signature integration studio, pairing a design course with appropriate faculty teams leading every course, for fourth-year students. The redesign of the program’s curriculum hinged on broadening that integration and introducing it much earlier than the program’s fourth year.

The faculty eliminated all of the existing stand-alone courses in structures, technology, and materials, and introduced a new framework of nine half-semester courses, offering two credit hours each, that better align with the agendas of the program’s second- and third-year studios. All of the new courses include blended content focused on topics such as climate, materials, and building systems, and reiterate concepts and principles throughout. As discussions around the curriculum progressed, the faculty took the opportunity to work in the school’s digital offerings including digital manipulation, modeling, and fabrication to extrapolate design strategies.

After two years of planning and discussion, the curriculum was adopted with a final faculty vote in 2015. Since the start of the second year class in fall 2016, the school has cycled through nine courses and has strengthened the existing fourth-year integration studio. By weaving together the trajectories of blended and reiterative content, the University of Tennessee has created a new paradigm for developing a sensibility in which design and technology are inseparable.