A Transparent Music Box

When Ballet Memphis outgrew its suburban space, the company moved to an up-and-coming performing arts district in Memphis, Tenn. The company relocated to a new, 44,000-square-foot facility in the Overton Square entertainment district that nearly double the size of its previous space.

New Ballet Memphis facility celebrates dance and architecture

By Marcy Marro

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Designed by local Memphis architect archimania, the building received a national AIA/AEC Education Facility Design award in 2018 and the 2018 Metal Architecture Design Award for Natural Metals. It houses rehearsal space for the professional ballet company, a dance school for more than 200 children, community classrooms and administrative space. In addition to offering community dance and pilates classes, the center’s largest rehearsal studio doubles as a performance venue.

A Transparent Mission

The civic-oriented facility engages the public in movement, culture and connection to the community. It is seen as an extension of the ballet company’s mission, which is to perform an inclusive message about culture and arts, and to uplift the community through transparency and connectivity.

Greg M. Price, AIA, ASLA, LC, an architect with archimania, says the project is all about transparency. “The ballet is not traditionally a transparent organization,” he notes. “The administration wanted to break free from that tradition. They wanted to connect with the community more directly; they wanted to change the outcome of how the community understands ballet, and also how the community interacts with them. We achieved this through transparency and many layers of engagement, allowing the community to come into the building, and the art form, to create a stronger, healthier community.”

The designers used layers of glass, perforated copper panels and volumes of contrasting metals to emulate a music box. Gauzy screens and courtyards penetrate the building mass, both masking and revealing the dancers within. To frame and display the activity and the dancers, designers chose warm and neutral materials to work alongside cool colors.

The glass allows people to be at any part of the building and be able to see inside or out. The main studio is made of glass on three sides, allowing people to watch ballet rehearsals and performances. “You can stand at one end of the building and see deep into the other end of the building because it’s so transparent,” Price says.

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Personal Interactions

From a pedestrian standpoint, Price says they pushed the building all the way up to the sidewalk and created a copper screen art wall with a 7-foot walkway. “This allows people to be outside the building, or interact with the building within an interstitial space between the street and the art wall. There is a fast and slow lane,” he says.

Located between the studios are two courtyards that cut into the building’s form. A fence encloses one, while the other is always open, allowing people to walk into the building perimeter—remaining outside, yet engaged with and contained by the organization. “You can look left or right or straight, and see people stretching, dancing, rehearsing, right there beside you,” Price says.

Unlike many ballet buildings, the designers opted to bring the costume shop and storage up front and close to one of the courtyards. “You can walk into a courtyard and look directly into the costume shop, which is an amazing experience because you see all of these beautiful reds, and blues and greens, and all of the different colorful clothes they’re making in there,” Price says. “There are private areas for fittings, but it is something that you don’t normally see, so it engages you and draws you into the creativity behind the ballet.”

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Creative Materials

Keeping with the theme of transparency, Price says the art form inspired the materials selected for the project. “There’s a lot of transparency in the materials used to make the costumes and the materials we used to make the building,” he says.

Highlighting the architectural design is more than 20,000 square feet of Elk Grove Village, Ill.-based Petersen Aluminum Corp.’s PAC-CLAD 7/8-inch Corrugated copper panels, of which half are perforated. The dramatic façade also includes 23,000 square feet of Petersen’s 0.032-inch aluminum Snap-Clad standing seam panels in Cool Color Metallic Zinc, which function as wall panels behind and above the corrugated copper panels.

To allow light and sight into the structure, the lower, street-level portion of the standing seam panels were also perforated. Additionally, PAC-CLAD Tite-Loc Plus panels were used on the flat roof portion of the building. Ranging from 41 to 51 feet in length, the Snap-Clad panels were installed vertically, which also helps to break up the mass and scale of the building.

The Design Award judges appreciated the designers’ soft-handed and simple choice of materials for the project. “It’s restrained, but playful,” says Sebastian Schmaling, AIA, LEED AP, principal, Johnsen Schmaling Architects, Milwaukee. “For the theater itself, it’s almost ballet-like movement at the top. The idea that this is the jewel protected by this perforated screen that defines the side and creates an interstitial space between the public realm and the theater itself is fabulous.”

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Changing Views

“The interesting thing about the copper and zinc panels is that no matter when you look and where you look at them, the building is always different,” Price says. “The copper also changes over time. If you see it on a Monday, it’s going to look different than on a Friday. If you see it in 2017, it’s going to look different in 2020, just because of how the natural material ages.”

“Both the copper and the zinc PAC-CLAD material at 3 in the afternoon versus 7 in the evening changes as the sun moves around it,” Price adds. “It’s never just one continuous color. That’s important because many people see ballet in different ways and we want people always to be engaged differently every time you see it, so it’s always new and it’s always telling a different story every time you read it.”

“It’s refreshing to see the design by archimania which applied traditional metal cladding products in creative and nontraditional ways,” says Mike Petersen, CEO, PAC-CLAD. “Equally critical to this project’s success was the way Ralph Jones Sheet Metal met the challenges of nontraditional metal installation with the expertise we’ve come to expect from them. We’re proud of our involvement with the professionals at both of these businesses, and congratulate them on their well-deserved recognition for their work on this building.”