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That Strain Again
HGA revamps Macalester College fine arts center.
The concert hall.
Paul Crosby Photography

Almost every U.S. college campus has a midcentury modernist building that turns architectural agnostics into either denouncers or defenders of brutalism. HGA Architects and Engineers’ rehabilitation of the Janet Wallace Fine Arts Center at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota, is further proof that these institutional buildings can stage successful second acts.

Circulation spaces are light-filled and inviting.

The 1963 arts center consists of four buildings for music, art, humanities, and theater and dance, with a central commons area. HGA’s rehab, completed in 2012, sought to make that space, the Lowe-Dayton Arts Commons, into the Center’s new front door.

Designer Tim Carl said all four buildings share a basic vocabulary of brick and dark metal, nodding to the original construction while tugging it towards contemporary design. Large windows reach out to the four courtyards that surround the Commons, putting the art inside on display for the wider campus. Light monitors filter north and a limited amount of south daylight through a filigree wood ceiling. The space has become an informal gallery complementing the 2,200-square-foot Law Warschaw Gallery and a staging area for campus protests.

The building exterior.

HGA has completed the first of the project’s four phases, renovating the Commons and the music building, which includes the 317-seat Mairs Concert Hall. Working with New York–based acousticians Acoustic Dimensions and Chicago-based lighting design firm Schuler Shook, HGA lowered the hall’s existing seating slightly and wrapped the room in wood baffling. An undulating red oak lattice conceals optional reflective panels and curtains that amplify or deaden sound as the performers desire. Though the stage and seating area are larger than before, the space feels more intimate. “There’s a much bigger volume of hall beyond what you see architecturally,” said Carl. “It’s so scientifically driven, but there’s a psychological aspect.”

Recital space (left) and gallery space (right).

Vertical glass panels punctuate the dark metal and red brick facade in a varied pattern. Shying away from any overbearing musical references, HGA specified a bronze cladding material whose color recalls the concert hall’s wood. The visual arts building, which is currently under design, will feature a similar strategy, but in terracotta. Low-VOC interior building materials, low-flow plumbing, permeable pavement in the parking lot, and a storm water retention system are among the performance features that have the team targeting a LEED Silver rating.

Chris Bentley


The commons.