Theater’s ability to bring people together across boundaries has made it an important force in urban life since ancient times. The design for Writers Theatre in Glencoe, Illinois, USA, is intended to maximize this potential for a 21st-century theater company, creating exciting spaces that energize the daily life of its community.
While the functional needs of today’s theaters require opaque volumes that are often closed off from their surroundings, the new home for this renowned theater company needed to function as both a destination for live performance and a community hub for the village of Glencoe. This challenge necessitated a design that could open to the surrounding context physically, visually, and programmatically. Organized as a village-like cluster of distinct volumes that surround a central hub, the building’s form harmonizes with the character of Glencoe’s downtown. The theater’s scale and materiality resonate with the surrounding village, while the architecture defines its significance as an important cultural anchor for the region.
The theater’s two performance spaces—a 250-seat main thrust stage and 99-seat black box space—employ innovative staging and seating configurations to maximize the sense of intimacy between actors and audience and to enhance the immersive experience of Writers’ productions. Both of these performance venues, in addition to rehearsal space, visitor amenities, and theater circulation, open onto the central gathering space of the lobby, which can function as an informal third venue and performs a civic role, activating the site with public space. The lobby’s transparent exterior, comprising large glass sliding doors, can physically open up to the community and nearby parks for open-air performances and festivals, allowing the energy and interaction generated within the theater to extend outward into the community beyond. The lobby is designed to accommodate the spoken word, providing opportunities for informal performances, events, and educational programs. Acoustic wood ceiling panels and theatrical lights further its ability to function for these purposes. Centrally located within the lobby with direct connections to both theaters, the box office and concessions also provide structural support for the lobby’s tribune seating.
Hung from timber roof trusses, the Canopy Walk on the second floor envelops the lobby, providing a welcoming space for gathering before and after the show and during intermission. The canopy walk is hung from wooden battens performing in tension, and their splayed geometry animates the facade. At night, the theater glows from within, drawing interest and activity to this important local and regional cultural anchor. The Canopy Walk’s Port Orford Cedar was selected for its exceptionally straight grain and naturally rot-resistant quality. The screen pattern follows the load path of the structure. The wood battens are bundled at the glulam beams to minimize the load at mid-span and are offset to distribute the load evenly. The flared detail at the lower cord connects the battens and beams without any mechanical fasteners. Made locally with conventional woodworking tools, the battens are steamed before the wedges are inserted. The flared connection is designed to slide in and up into a matching groove in the glulam. An undercut prevents it from slipping forward when in its locked position. This innovative use of wood in tension aims to extend the drama of performance from the main stage to the lobby and streetscape beyond, simultaneously revealing the forces and materials that make the structure possible. At the same time, it improves the environmental performance of the building through self-shading and, together with a ceramic frit is applied to the theater’s exterior glass surface, reduces bird strikes.
While theaters are by default an energy-intensive building typology, efforts were taken to maximize sustainability, including purchasing Green Power, employing an innovative HVAC system that uses the concept of displacement ventilation, and utilizing a green roof and native landscaping to reduce heat lost, run-off, and the need for irrigation. The Theatre is targeting LEED Gold Certification by the USGBC LEED Program and was granted the Green Design and Construction Grant by the Illinois Clean Energy Community Foundation.
Brick from the structure previously on the site was re-used in the new theater for its acoustic properties. The brick was sorted, cleaned, and glazed before being assembled into a vibrant acoustic screen for the main stage theater. Timber felled by constructed was reused as millwork and furniture for the interiors. In general, materials were selected based on their recycled and regional content, low VOC levels, and on-site recyclability. Of the project’s construction materials, 10.34% consist of recycled content (both pre- and post-consumer), while a total of 23.43% consist of material both harvested and manufactured within 500 miles of the project site. Low-emitting and zero-VOC paints and coatings, as well as adhesives and sealants, were employed to ensure the indoor environmental quality of the project. All interior finishes are low-emitting and compliant with sustainable standards for VOC levels.
The 36,000-sf Writers Theatre cost $26,000,000, with partial funding from an Our Town grant from the United States’ National Endowment for the Arts.
Jeanne Gang, Mark Schendel, Juliane Wolf, Harry Soenksen, William Emmick, and Margaret Cavenagh, with Angela Peckham, Kara Boyd, Maciej Kaczynski, Claire Cahan, Michan Walker, Rodia V. Sanchez, Rolf Temesvari, Christopher Vant Hoff, Lindsey Moyer, and Stephen Claeys
AMS Planning and Research, project advisor; Auerbach Pollock Friedlander, theater consultant; Coen + Partners, landscape architect; dbHMS, MEP/FP; Halvorson and Partners, structural engineering; Lightswitch Architectural Chicago, lighting; Peter Heppel Associates, engineering specialist; SPACECO, Inc., civil engineering; Threshold Acoustics, acoustics; Trillium Dell Timberworks, timber specialist; Venue, cost consultant; WMA Consulting Engineers, sustainability consultant; Holmes Testing, geotechnical engineer
Trillium Dell Timberworks, Rareform, Dukane Precast, WW Timbers, Prairie, CRLaurence, Parrett
Steve Hall (c) Hedrich Blessing
Founded by Jeanne Gang in 1997, Studio Gang is an architecture and urban design practice in Chicago and New York. The Studio works across types and scales of projects—from cultural and public buildings, to urban parks, to high-rise towers—to create places that connect people with each other and their environment. A sustainability ethos is central to the practice, coupled with a methodology defined by research, experimentation, and interdisciplinary collaboration. This approach has enabled the Studio to produce innovative architecture recognized for a strong connection to its specific place and purpose, including such award-winning projects as the Arcus Center for Social Justice Leadership at Kalamazoo College in Kalamazoo, MI, USA; Writers Theatre in Glencoe, IL, USA; and two public boathouses on the Chicago River in Chicago, IL, USA. The Studio is currently working on major projects throughout the Americas and Europe.