The Thacher School, Arts Building and Commons – California
Barton Phelps & Associates
Architects and Planners
Photos: Benny Chan – Fotoworks
Set between mountain range and coastal valley, the hillside campus of this 115 year-old boarding school is a 24 / 7 academic community of 235 students, 40 faculty, and 140 horses. Demanding studies combine with rugged outdoor life on ranch-like grounds expressive of school philosophy. Insertion of the Arts Building and Commons into the historic core prompted evaluation both of the existing campus plan and the power of the surrounding terrain- a quality often unrecognized in earlier buildings – and offered a chance to show how to take better advantage of a remarkable landscape.
1. Exploiting Building / Site Relationships: One goal was to demonstrate the project’s potential to expand usefulness of adjoining outdoor spaces and to enhance the overall campus experience. American campus tradition treats outdoor spaces as functional / symbolic components of an ideal landscape and a source of institutional identity. But how does this work in mountainous terrain? On this site, a semi-arid condition and looming mountain peaks bring to mind the Greek landscape and with it, ancient planning strategies for establishing clear relationships between sacred buildings and prominent topographic features, heightening awareness of the natural world and people’s place in it. The running track at this school looks a lot like Delphi.
2. Double-functioning space: Two building programs are treated as one to avoid redundant spaces. In addition to relaxed spaces for student, faculty, alumni, and conference use, the Commons provides lobby / reception / rest room facilities for events in either building. Lower level music practice rooms are just across the court from the stage and group rehearsal rooms of the Arts Building. Circulation is concentrated in a sky-lit central corridor (call it “socio-petal space”) interpreted like a Parisian shopping arcade with café, post office, school store. It doubles as a gallery for student work or traveling exhibitions. A tack- board kiosk, (“The Toad”) provides pinup information, internet access, and soft drinks. The adjacent multi-purpose room can expand the café for dances, dinners, and talks.
3. A Curricular Shift: As a multi-use performing arts center, the Arts Building promotes increased participation in arts programs. The mid-range acoustics of the 450-seat auditorium are equally good for music, speech, drama, dance, and cinema. Its asymmetrical entry, cross aisle, and separate lighting zones allow the lower house (300 seats) to be used for daily assembly with the intimacy of a smaller room. Overhead doors at the rear open for natural ventilation and horseback seating. Interiors are intentionally plain. Exposed structure, spiral stairs, ladders, catwalks, and lighting balconies recall the school’s long-gone Rough House which combined gym calisthenics and scary equipment in a fondly held kind of male adolescent exhaustion machine.
4. Clarifying and Capturing: The buildings resolve a conflicted part of the campus plan and shape space for intermission crowds, casual student use, and ceremonial functions. They also frame a new view corridor to the west. The Arts Building borders a venerated triangular playing field then cranks to align with the north/south grid of the central campus forming a strong corner for the open lawn to the north. The Commons anchors the new project to the old Pergola at the center of the school. Its cantilevered deck and window wall afford a sweeping overlook on the long axis of the valley. Building alignments and tall windows in the auditorium, rehearsal rooms, and cafe make a distant mountain view the focus of each space.
5. Sustainability and Regional Vernacular: Vernacular building forms and materials enclose a technically complex program, responding to climate and natural features in a way that unifies the larger landscape. Contemporary spatial concepts, detailing, construction, and planting and lighting design are overlaid. Orientation, daylight penetration, roof overhangs and sun screens, grading and foundation design, natural ventilation / HVAC systems, and materials selections all reflect a balance between limiting construction cost and maximizing life-cycle performance. Stucco, architectural concrete, metal siding and roofing predominate. Client-requested wood siding is used sparingly.