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U Architecture Students: Have Project, Will Travel

View from theatre site is toward 9/11 Memorial.

“The education of the architect includes a phenomenon called the Design Studio … the core of the curriculum where students are given theoretical projects to design,” begins John Woodson Rainey, New York architect – and graduate of the U of U architecture school. Rainey was invited by the U’s College of Architecture + Planning to design and oversee a studio for U of U architecture students last semester. “Usually the students work alone, designing and documenting a solution to a specific, often real problem,” which helps prepare the next generation of design professionals with practical real-world experience. This studio was based on a very real design problem at one of the most visible building sites in the world—NewYork City’s Ground Zero.

Ground Zero in New York. Photo Jon Galbraith

The students had a chance to tackle a problem like no other. The pieces alone are challenging, but when added together, create a project of dizzying proportion – “one of the most complex and compelling architectural challenges in New York,” asserts Rainey, who suggested the project, knowing full well the complexity it would pose to any architect, let alone second year graduate students.

Model of the site used in studio to design Joyce Performing Arts Theatre. Photo Jen Manckia

The students’ charge was to design a dance theatre, when designing any theatre presents unique issues.  In addition, this is a theatre requiring 100,000 square feet of interior space while set on a relatively tiny piece of land. On top of that, the land is sandwiched between the 9/11 Memorial—sacred space to many—and in the shadow of One World Trade Center, which will top out at 1,776 feet, towering over the site and surrounding buildings. Finally, the students recognized they would need to respond to the compelling physical and spiritual forces that shape the site in a way that reflects the life-giving aspects of art while respecting the sense of loss inherent in the location.

Oh yes, and complete it in just six weeks. The results, says Rainey, “were remarkable.”

View from theatre site is toward 9/11 Memorial.

In New York, the idea of a cultural center at Ground Zero is not without controversy. Indeed, Adam LaFortune, one of the students admits to being conflicted about whether the proposed use of the site is appropriate, adding another layer of tension to his work.

Another student, Jen Manckia, described the assignment this way: “in the New York studio, we were to create a contextualresponse to the Ground Zero site, basically, to internalize the physical circumstances as well as emotional ties to this crazy, emotionally-charged site to make the Joyce Performing Arts Center. I think the first feeling anyone would naturally feel is overwhelmed, and we were.”

Students and collaborators at the Ground Zero site

But opportunities for the students on this project were also like no other. During their time in New York, “We had amazing meetings with the project manager of Tower One, the main designers of the Ground Zero Memorial as well as with the director of the Joyce Theater,” says another student, Jon Galbraith. “It was a great experience to enter the memorial and see the great work that has been rendered to remember the lives that were lost on 9/11.” The meetings and tours—the students were able to view the infrastructure of the entire development as well as be exposed to the culture and lifestyle of a major urban environment—set the stage for the students’ interpretations.

Exterior rendering by Jon Galbraith

Galbraith’s approach was to exploit the dichotomy between “life” and “void” at the site. “I knew that this Performing Arts Center has to be a space that represented both the life that occupies the space, as well as the lives lost,” he says. “I wanted the building to look as if it had broken apart due to the strong external forces of life and death. A metal louver system on the façade expresses the movement of the two elements on this unique site. The transparency of the façade brings the user in and provides a visual connection to the memorial and adjacent sites of lower Manhattan, while the opaque areas provide functionality for the theatre.”

Manckia focused on the notion that every action generates a reaction. As she thought about the action of the terrorist attack and the reaction in the development of Ground Zero, she says, “this also made me think about dance and what it means, and that it too is a series of actions and reactions. So when developing my form, I looked at how this building could be extruded as a reaction not only to tragedy, but also to healing and embrace.”

Interior rendering by Adam LaFortune

Looking at the studio concept more broadly, LaFortune comments that “this project provided us with a great opportunity to see how architecture operates in other cities. Every time I travel, my eyes are opened to new possibilities, and I am inspired by the diversity of architectural solutions I encounter.”

That measure alone might indicate that the Studio was successful. As Rainey, who taught at Columbia and still teaches part-time at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, was quoted in a recent New York Times article about the project: “I wanted them to have that urban experience. They wouldn’t have anything comparable in Salt Lake.”

That expectation lies at the heart of the curriculum. “The dedication to travel-oriented studios at the University of Utah is unique among U.S. architecture schools,” says Prescott Muir, director of the U’s School of Architecture, and who is currently with students working on another project in Vancouver, B.C. “We stage them so that the financial burden is manageable, but feel that they are indispensable for a school that is isolated geographically with many students who have never left the region. Learning to interpret other places and empathize with other peoples in a rapid fashion is what architects are trained to do. To some degree, it is part of our pedigree, that is, to quietly observe often with sketchbook in hand. New York is immensely different in scale than Salt Lake, but hopefully students found similarities as well such as a love of place born of very cohesive neighborhoods.”

Muir, who studied fine arts at the U and continues his architecture practice in Salt Lake, concludes that “one goal of the school is to aid students in learning to interpret a place, and then to reinforce its attributes. To accomplish this, we develop travel experiences not only to diverse places, but also to cities that we return to often such as Turin, Italy; Stuttgart, Germany; Tokyo and Kyoto, Japan; Sante Fe, Argentina; and in the U.S., New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, San Francisco, New Orleans and the Pacific Northwest. Developing ongoing commitments to and exchange with such a network provides invaluable depth for future professionals.”

Upper lobby by Pooya Bakhsheshi

Bob Springmeyer, one of the jurors of the project notes that he was impressed with Rainey and the department for having “ brought such a project to the University of Utah, and for … care and nurturing of the students to be sure the project didn’t overwhelm and intimidate them.” And in the end says Springmeyer, “the students responded with scale, scope, imagination and creativity. Their solutions respected the sanctity of the site and yet celebrated both quality design and the celebration of life. They are on their way.”


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  • A Fan of Architecture

    This seems like an amazing opportunity for architecture students to work on a project at ground zero.

  • bill

    “The students responded with scale, scope, imagination and creativity” Smart students thats the way forward

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