Narrow bridges

Architect UB bridges culture and community with new space for Torn Space Theater

Pull the curtain back on “Hidden Identities,” the recently unveiled renovation of the Torn Space Theater in Buffalo, and a surprise awaits: a state-of-the-art black box theater opens onto a vast green lawn, flooded with light through a wall of glass doors. from the ground to the ceiling.

The dramatic transformation of a 126-year-old building on the East Side of Buffalo into a flexible indoor-outdoor performance and event space is the work of UB architecture professor Christopher Romano. It is also the latest evolution of the contemporary performing theater plan to create a cultural campus and engagement site on the city’s East Side.

The three-story building located at 618 Fillmore Ave. dates back to 1895, when the Adam Mickiewicz Library and Drama Circle (AML) was founded as a cultural space for the city’s burgeoning Polish immigrant community. AML still occupies the space, now its library as well as a historic Polonia tavern. Torn Space Theater, an experimental theater company that combines visual, performing and media arts, has been operating from AML’s original theater at the rear of the building since 2000.

Revealed at a groundbreaking ceremony earlier this year, the $ 1.2 million renovation was supported by New York State’s East Side Corridor Economic Development Fund, as part of the revitalization strategy of Buffalo Billion Phase II for the East Side of the city. More than two dozen foundations, individuals and businesses provided additional support.

Romano and his design firm, Studio NORTH Architecture, were involved from the start, working with Torn Space to shape the master plan and design the first phase of the theater expansion in 2017. This project converted a former store to gasoline next to the main theater. construction in ‘Light / Station’, a production facility featuring a signature perforated metal facade that sends bursts of light into the surrounding neighborhood.

The theater is strategically located next to East Side landmarks such as the Broadway Market, St. Stanislaus Church, and the Central Terminal, as well as an emerging cluster of urban farms, the renovation of the former Schreiber Brewery and a Buddhist cultural center. The site sits on a major north-south transit corridor connecting Larkinville to the Broadway / Fillmore shopping district.

“Chris and his team at UB and Studio NORTH have been a critical partner in the emergence of Torn Space as a place-based cultural anchor that elevates quality design. We are committed to ensuring the long-term viability of the Broadway / Fillmore Historic District and began activating our campus as a site of community engagement. This process began in 2015 with the dynamic transformation of our design studio by Studio NORTH and continued into 2021 with the launch of Hidden Identifies, ”explains Dan Shanahan, artistic director of Torn Space Theater, which he founded in 2002 with Melissa Meola.

Romano says hidden identities emerged in response to a complex design challenge presented by Torn Space: converting an obsolete theater in a historic building into a standard black box-type theater that can open up to the surrounding landscape.

“These are two important but different functions: one is necessarily dark and ‘walled up’, while the other requires sufficient lighting and a feeling of openness. The challenge was to properly integrate these two ‘identities’ into one space, ”says Romano, who served as the reference architect for the project through Studio NORTH Architecture.

The design team’s approach was surgical – a combination of unobtrusive design movements and technical precision that bundled high-end black box mechanics and technology into thick, heavy walls, and excavated and exposed other spaces to create openings and flexibility. The building’s row of double-height folding glass doors easily transition from a white wall to an open facade by means of a heavy velvet curtain.

“The result is a space that can easily move from an austere, simple and flat space to an organic, bright and dynamic space, extending the performance space onto the surrounding grounds and creating openings for the community to engage. in space, ”adds Romano.

Each wall has been thickened on all four sides to create space for sophisticated lighting and acoustic equipment, as well as ancillary spaces such as the mechanical room, technical cabin and lavatories. A “room of silence” – the transitional space between the historic tavern in the center of the building and the theater in the back – features walls 9 feet thick.

Romano’s combination of cover-up and reveal design solutions also mixed the old with the new. An original brick wall has been excavated and exposed, while the transition from the original wood floor to an enlarged section at the rear is demarcated to emphasize the transition from old to new. The building’s original proscenium was removed to create a “cave” or “pit” to allow for alternative arrangements between the audience and the performer. A 20-ton dolomite boulder towers over the opening, suggesting a temporal and physical connection to underground geological history spanning 4 million years.

Romano’s third major design movement was to dissolve the boundary between interior and exterior with a wall of floor-to-ceiling sliding glass doors. In addition to allowing performances and events to spill over to the outdoors, the treatment integrates the space with the surrounding landscape with views of the historic Saint-Stanislas Church.

The “hidden” elements of the space maximize performance without competing with the visual experience. The void of the black box eventually fades into the background, allowing the richness of the historical elements, the warmth of the brick wall and parquet, and the surrounding landscape to take center stage.

“In ‘Hidden Identities’ theater and architecture work together as acts of space creation and cultural creation,” explains Romano. “This is an exciting progression in the Torn Space master plan which we hope will create a new cultural landmark and community space for Buffalo.”

The final phase of the plan will transform a lawn connecting the main theater building and Light / Station into a community green space to host outdoor shows and events. Torn Space began using its new space in July, inviting guests to the surrounding lawn for performances that project light, sound and video onto the Light / Station facade.

Romano says his collaboration with Torn Space demonstrates the unique role that research-based practices like Studio NORTH can play in the community. For example, as the official architect for Hidden Identities, Romano hired architecture students and recent graduates from UB to provide design support. UB’s Faculty of Architecture members Randy Fernando and Mike Hoover, both graduates of the UB Architecture program, served as design assistants throughout the project. In addition, the “Light / Station” facade is an extension of Romano’s research into the structural possibilities of thin metals, which he is pursuing with architectural manufacturer Buffalo Rigidized Metals. This project has won several local and national design awards.

Dean Robert Shibley says the dynamic places faculty-led practices at the frontier of research and application. “Chris’ work with Torn Space demonstrates what is possible when we locate our research in the communities we serve. This creates openings for design and entrepreneurial development, collaborative client-owner relationships and the translation of innovative research into constructed forms that enrich and animate our community.

The School of Architecture and Urban Planning was also intensely involved in the state’s economic development strategy for the East Side, which laid the groundwork for the Torn Space project. The UB Regional Institute is leading East Side Avenues, a public engagement and capacity building initiative to support community investments from the East Side Corridor Economic Development Fund.