Glencoe, IL, USA
W.E. O'Neil (General Contractor) Halvorson and Partners (Structural Engineer) dbHMS (MEP/FP) SPACECO Inc. (Civil Engineer) Peter Heppel Associates (Engineering Specialist) Trillium Dell Timberworks (Timber Specialist) WMA Consulting Engineers (Sustainability Consultant) Threshold Acoustics (Acoustic Consultant) Lightswitch (Lighting Consultant) Auerbach Pollock Friedlander (Theater Consultant) Coen + Partners (Landscape Architect) Venue (Cost Consultant) AMS Planning and Research (Project Advisor)
Having grown into a nationally acclaimed company via performances held in small, provisional spaces, Writers felt it was essential to retain this same intimacy in its new, purpose-built home. At the same time the company hoped to expand its capacity and innovate the tradition of the thrust stage with exciting seating and staging configurations that could open up new theatrical opportunities. While the functional needs of today’s theaters require opaque volumes often closed off from their surroundings, Writers’ new home needed to function as both a destination for live performance and a public open space for the community to gather—a hub for community life centered on the arts. This goal necessitated a design that opens to the surrounding context physically, visually, and programmatically, resonating with the village-like downtown and nearby parks while inviting the community in to enjoy events and to gather together. It was also essential that the new theater create an iconic identity for the company that would define its significance as an important cultural anchor, drawing interest from throughout the region. Significantly, the company hoped to target high sustainability metrics despite a project type known for its extensive energy consumption.
Writers Theatre is a nationally renowned theater company based in Glencoe, Illinois. Formerly housed in the back room of a bookstore and then within the Glencoe Women’s Library, the company sought a new, purpose-built space—the first in its history—that would maintain its trademark intimacy while ushering in a new chapter, increasing its capacity while also expanding its mission and impact. The village of Glencoe, a northern suburb of Chicago, arose as its thick forests were harvested, processed, and shipped south along rail- and waterways. The area’s many Tudor-style buildings, with their characteristic exposed wood frames, recall England’s early Modern period—a golden age of English drama when local theaters brought all social classes together with the power of live performance. Theaters have served as crucial cultural and community forums throughout history, and Writers has long played this role for the village of Glencoe. In designing the company’s new space, the team sought to expand this role at a variety of scales—zooming out to imagine the theater as a regional destination for cultural exchange, while zooming in to understand how Writers could build on its tradition of intimate, immersive productions with an architecture that encourages close relationships between actors and audience.
Organized as a village-like cluster of distinct volumes, the theater’s performance spaces, a 250-seat main stage and a 99-seat black box venue, increase capacity while maintaining the intimacy for which the company is renowned, with small cohorts of audience members organized around thrust stages flush with the floor, extending the space of the play directly into the audience. A patterned screen of repurposed bricks is tuned for enhanced acoustics, allowing the spoken word to resonate throughout the larger venue. Physically opening to its surroundings, the central space of the lobby is designed to host events and gatherings that complement performances in the formal theater spaces. Its transparent relationship with the street brings the energy of the thrust stage to the theater’s front door and beyond, while also inviting the community in. Responding to the site’s heritage and the history of timber-framed theaters, the project pushes the structural and expressive capabilities of wood. Great timber trusses structure the building, with a lighter wood lattice, hung in tension without mechanical fasteners, defining the second-floor canopy walk, which envelops the lobby and provides an inviting interior-exterior space where people can interact. With its transparency and bold expression, the LEED Gold building creates an iconic, energizing urban presence, while its materiality and ivy-covered theater volume complement the surrounding built and natural environment. At night, the theater glows like a lantern from within, announcing performances and welcoming neighbors while also drawing interest and activity from around the Chicago region to the village’s center.