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A New Vision

building_profile_september_2012Compared to most universities, George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., is a johnny-come-lately. Founded in 1957, the school became independent in 1972 and has been known primarily as a suburban commuter school. But over the last decade it has expanded its growth (32,000 students) and laid-down strong educational bona fides (two Nobel Laureates). What it has never really had, though, after going through years of massive expansion, is a unified architectural presence.

For Amado Fernandez, AIA, and Keith Driscoll, AIA, of Hughes Group Architects, Sterling, Va., that meant there was a clean slate to play on when they designed the addition to the Donald and Nancy de Laski Performing Arts Center. Fernandez acted as principal-in-charge on the project, while Driscoll took the reins as project architect.

Their marching orders were to design an addition for the performing arts center that would house additional space for the dance program (which was needed to get full accreditation), as well as band and percussion practice rooms. The addition is on the back of the center, where most of the classrooms are, and is the main connection to the campus, requiring a more formal entryway. Since the center is on a sloping grade, the addition actually attaches to the existing building on the third floor.

"The existing building remained pretty much as is for the most part," says Fernandez. Unfortunately, the existing building was a rather large, nondescript rectangle with earthen brick. "George Mason University is not a campus with an overriding architectural or material theme," Fernandez says. "For the performing arts, we wanted to create an edgier element."

Hughes Group Architects used bowing walls and metal panels from Perth Amboy, N.J.-based Englert Inc., to differentiate the addition from the existing building. It separated the addition visually by placing a wing wall. The curved walls intersect the building envelope, and the small, shake-like metal panels appear on the large bowing wall's interior as well as exterior.

There were both technical and aesthetic reasons for choosing the smaller panels. "We wanted to maintain the curve without having to bend the panels," says Fernandez. "We could do the radius easier and cleaner." Smaller panels also prevented them from having to deal with issues of oil canning.

Aesthetically, the smaller panels related back to the brick of the existing building, as well as give the large façade more definition. "The panels have a texture to them," says Driscoll. That texture and easy pattern give depth to the wall and reflect the natural light with variations, creating more visual interest.

building_profile_website_image_september_2012"We consciously didn't go with large horizontal panels," says Fernandez. "Basically, the addition is mostly composed of metal panels, glass and curved walls. We wanted the skin of the addition to be consistent with itself and create difference with the existing brick."

The selection of the natural metal look is part of the differentiation as well, and an important element to providing the more contemporary, edgy feel that a performing arts center should have. "The coil stock is stamped with a texture, which coupled with the metallic paint color, gives a lot of life and dimension to the Kynar-coated aluminum," says Driscoll. "Otherwise, it can be pretty monolithic."

The practice rooms for both band and dance are light filled from both the curtainwalls and skylights, which were both supplied by Oldcastle BuildingEnvelope, Santa Monica, Calif. A long skylight across the breadth of the lobby sheds natural light on the metal panels on the interior of the curved wall, which again brings the outdoors indoors and breaks the building envelope barrier.

The other major element of the addition is the entryway. Previously, students sneaked into the back of the building through a recessed entry with double metal doors. Now, the entry reads like an old-fashioned theater, reinforcing the role of the building as a performing arts center. The canopy is custom fabricated and appears to be freestanding, although strongly braced by cables. Its gentle slope mimics the curve of the walls, and one end appears to dive into the wall, breaking the envelope in yet another way.