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Articulate Architecture

PROJECT
The John E. Palmer Cultural Center, The American School in Switzerland (TASIS), Collina D'Oro, Ticino, Switzerland

DESIGN ARCHITECT & PAINTER
David Mayernik Ltd., South Bend, IN; David Mayernik, principal

ARCHITECT OF RECORD
Elena Ricciardo, Grancia, Switzerland

DIRECTOR OF WORKS
Pierangelo Realini, Lugano, Switzerland

CONTRACTOR
Ditta Garzoni, SA Lugano, Switzerland

By Annabel Hsin

More than 15 years ago, Lynn Fleming Aeschliman, Chairman of Board of Directors at The American School in Switzerland (TASIS) in Collina D'Oro, fell in love with a briefly sketched master plan presented by Classical architect and painter David Mayernik. The concept was a village environment tucked in the hills below the Alps. It would maximize the limited amount of usable green space while organizing the heart of the small campus – a series of buildings, piazzas, walkways and bridges – around Monticello, an existing 1980s building that housed classrooms and dormitories. The design plan, aptly named the TASIS Global Village, also represented a model community the school could use as a teaching tool for aspects of civic life.

In addition to the master plan, Mayernik has also designed 10 traditional buildings for the campus, and inspired by Ticino's Northern Italian roots, he organized the structures based on Italian hill towns. However, rather than focusing on a specific architectural style, he follows the Italian Renaissance tradition of designing architecture rhetorically. "I prefer to think of what I do as Classical architecture and in that sense it's a language," says Mayernik. "It's a way of being articulate in buildings. I don't specifically copy or try to evoke a particular style. I'm not saying that someone might not see aspects of a certain style in the buildings, but the intention is to be Classical, articulate and rhetorical, and not to be stylistically evocative."

At the foot of the hillside, The John E. Palmer Cultural Center, one of Mayernik's designs, is the gateway to the academic village. The challenge was to create a sense of presence for the new center – as it is positioned next to the gymnasium, the largest building on campus (see Traditional Building January/February 2004, page 24) – while contending with a strict budget that restricted square footage and architectural details. "The clients were fundraising for the project so costs were pretty tight," says Mayernik. "The only way to keep costs down was to keep the building small, so it's incredibly compact and efficiently organized."

In contrast to the rustic exterior of the gymnasium, the overt pediment above a cast-stone portico on the main façade of the cultural center creates presence. The portico features Classical details and granite columns. Structural walls were built using sustainable insulating clay blocks finished with stucco and a traditional lime wash. A combination of reclaimed and new terra-cotta tile was installed on the roof and the cast-stone cornices were cast in place. Half-round wood windows and double doors, manufactured by Altstätten, Switzerland-based EgoKiefer Windows and Doors, as well as decorative light fixtures, supplied by Florence, Italy-based Fantechi & Daddi, complete the exterior.

The terra-cotta exterior is another distinguishing aspect of the cultural center. "The materials are the same for all the buildings," says Mayernik. "The only thing that changes is the character and color. Because stucco can be painted, I can emphasize certain buildings and create variety with different colors. Even though the cultural center is small, it is a warm red that gives it presence against the mass of the gym. I try to be strategic about where the colors go so that they create the effect of disparate buildings, yet the traditional earth-tone palette harmonizes well together."

Since decorative elements were kept to a minimum, Mayernik utilized his skills as a painter to create frescoes. The two pairs of muses – Tragedy and Comedy, Music and History – in the niches flanking the auditorium entry inform visitors of the types of performances that occur within. The tympanum above the portico entry is an extended cartouche featuring elements of the TASIS crest: a bell tower, a lantern and a sun behind an opened book, which contains a quote from William Shakespeare's Henry V – "O, for a muse of fire."

Below the tympanum, a frieze depicts a group of cherubs holding a banner and playing various musical instruments. "The frieze has a motto that says, 'Concordia Discors Harmonia Est [Harmony is Concordant Discord],' and it means that musical harmony comes from reconciling disparate things, weaving them together to make music," says Mayernik. "The building represents that – it is concordant discord. It has different spaces, the auditorium and lobby spaces, but they are woven together as sympathetic opposites and they theoretically make a kind of music."

In the interior, the lobby spaces are separated with piers and granite borders. Terra-cotta tile is used in the two entry areas and the formal gallery at the center features herringbone-patterned oak floors, which relate to the auditorium and foyer above. Stucco moldings and tray ceilings unite the three areas. On the upper level, the focal point of the foyer is a control booth modeled after an 18th-century tent in Drottningholm, Sweden, and is complemented by a cement vaulted ceiling painted with a canopy appearance. "There was no place for the control booth because of the economy of the plan," says Mayernik. "The booth would rob seats in the auditorium and if a separate space was created that meant the building would be bigger. The only possibility I saw was to put it in the foyer. I treated the foyer as a grand vaulted hall and the booth like a pavilion."

Intarsia-paneled doors, custom made by Todi, Italy-based Daniele Parasecolo, lead to the auditorium on the ground floor. The panels' polyhedron designs are inscribed with a motto from Shakespeare's Globe, "Totus Mundus Agit Histrionem [All the World's a Stage]," and the faceted rings allude to the quote on the exterior's tympanum.

Juxtaposed against the formal lobby, the exposed timber-framed ceiling, wood panels and oak floors in the auditorium evoke an intimate workaday environment. The combination of wood and stucco allows the space to acoustically accommodate musical and spoken-word performances. Retractable seating (manufactured by Wiltshire, UK-based Audience Systems), was designed to accommodate just 134 guests so productions could run longer, giving students more opportunities to perform.

Narrow balconies with wrought-iron railings, fabricated by Ticino, Switzerland-based Officine Cameroni, serve as catwalks. A side corridor doubles as the backstage to conserve space. "At some levels, the auditorium functions like a black box theater," says Mayernik. "The students build the stage for every performance and with the retractable seating the space can be used for other events."

The John E. Palmer Cultural Center is the fourth building to be completed in the TASIS Global Village, after the gymnasium, the 2005 Palladio Award-winning M. Crist Fleming Library (see Traditional Building June 2005, page 11) and a classroom building. "We've had a very strong theater department for years, decades even, but on campus we've had temporary theaters in tents, basements and attics so this is our first real theater," says Aeschliman.

"The students love acting in there and the sound is fantastic. It is a jewel of a theater. Part of our goal is to surround people with beauty and Mayernik is a rare architect who understands and creates beauty." Mayernik's next project is a new arts center above a practice gym, which will rise behind the cultural center.  TB

 

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