Problem:

When Wilson Butler Architects set out to create the Calderwood Pavilion, Boston's first new theatre in 75 years, they had to please two distinct theatre clients and a condominium developer/landlord. The city of Boston, which had razed a derelict theatre and sponsored development that would include an arts facility on that theatre's former site, also got into the act.

The Huntington Theater Company (HTC) wanted an intimate 360-seat proscenium house in an inviting space that wouldn't distract from productions of new works, not a continuation of the exterior façade of pleated metal and acute angles designed by the developer's architect. The Boston Center of the Arts (BCA) wanted a 200-seat flexible black box mainly for experimental programming and small guest theatres. “We had to get everyone to agree on what the program was,” says project manager, architect Bruce Herrmann, noting that each client wanted more than what was affordable or even possible in 35,000sq.ft, arranged in a narrow and irregular space, staggered in section, and compressed in height.

Everything — theatres and support spaces — had to fit into a predesigned shell created by the developer's architects. Three floors for theatre would be under nine floors housing 100 condominiums and above a subterranean parking garage; it would be surrounded by ground level retail stores, restaurants, and the Cyclorama Building, BCA's other home. Along with spatial challenges, they knew there would be noise isolation issues.

By the time Wilson Butler started designing, the developer had begun construction. “We had to meet incredible deadlines to stay ahead of the base building contractor,” says Herrmann. “What started out as an interior project became a more complex architectural problem of trying to fit a theatre into a space that it didn't want to fit in and to interface with all the many stakeholders,” says Herrmann.

Solution:

Initially, Wilson Butler held many meetings. “Ideally, an architect designs a building to accommodate a program. In this case, the footprint was fixed, and we were squeezed in tighter than we would ever prefer,” says Herrmann. “We needed to get everyone invested.”

“Many architects create computer models, and we do too, but theatres tend to be unique, three-dimensional puzzles,” Herrmann adds, noting that Wilson Butler is in the habit of taking on unusual projects, including designing theatres inside cruise ships. “We built a scale 3D model of the building with the parking garage below and several floors of condos above.”

The model facilitated communication by revealing the limitations of the space. Did clients want rehearsal rooms or shops, storage spaces or offices? They decided on two theatres, rehearsal spaces, and dressing rooms “that would be anything but square.”

The models also sent all the architects back to the drawing board. “When we put the scale beams in, we discovered steel beams flying through spaces where nobody expected,” says Herrmann. Nobody could walk through a doorway sliced by a beam. Exit stairs went through the auditorium. The steel superstructure would make it impossible for an elevator to connect the historic Cyclorama Building to the new building the BCA would share with the Huntington. It would be necessary to exclude a 4' space between the theatre floor and the first condo floor for sound isolation, and mechanical engineers would have to rethink the duct work.

“We also found a number of places with low head room,” says Herrmann of the unusual geometries that had to be confronted. “As we built the model of the rehearsal room base structure, we found that the base building steel structure departed from base building elevations, so we annotated the model as we went. Eventually, we invited the base building design and construction teams in to discuss the problems and jointly find solutions.”

Architects also tested materials and colors in the model. “It can be difficult for clients and potential donors to visualize the spaces when looking at plans and materials boards,” says Herrmann, “With the color, carpet patterns, even lighting in place in the model, it's possible for everyone to understand the spaces.”

By finding structural impossibilities and other problems before construction on the shell got far, the Wilson Butler team solved potential problems before they occurred. “Wilson Butler understood the collaborative and artistic processes,” says Nicholas Martin, artistic director of the HTC. “That made it possible for them to create functional, intimate, and charming new theatres for us.”

If you have encountered a problem while designing or building a concert, event, exhibit, or play, please tell us about it at davi@comcast.net.