Glencoe, Illinois, home to 9,000 people on a prime lakefront location, is not known for its architecture. Yet the village contains a unique Frank Lloyd Wright residential development, Ravine Bluffs, hidden on the north side of town. It also has a Keck and Keck plot full of tiny (by today’s standards) Mid-century Modern houses very close to Highland Park. David Adler and Howard Van Doren Shaw have built a number of estates in the community, which are carefully screened from public view on large estates. The small downtown is quaint and without a memorable piece of architecture.
But now Jeanne Gang, of Studio Gang Architects from Chicago, has come to town and completed a spectacular new live performance space known as Glencoe’s own Writers Theatre. This popular venue has attracted critical acclaim for its consistent high quality and intimacy.
Gang’s design seeks to energize the daily life in the community with its flexibility and transparency, potentially enlivening life in downtown. As with the majority of the North Shore communities, the downtown is very quiet with little to draw people in the evenings, save Ravinia in Highland Park. This sensitively developed project builds on the existing infrastructure, with the Metra providing dependable north-south entree, the Edens Expressway provides access from the adjacent communities, plus Sheridan Road passes directly in front of the complex.
With “place making” in mind, the architects visualized the building concept as a “lantern” on the drive nestled into the small-scale volumes and voids of the village. Two studied entrances guide visitors to the heart of the space: a public gathering room that also serves as a lobby. There are two performance venues, a 250-seat main thrust stage and a 99-seat black box. A second-floor glassy gallery walk, framed by raw wood timbers, open to views of the lake, downtown and a grove of trees.
The space is free, spanned by timber Vierendeel trusses and a lighter wood lattice, which is hung in tension from the trusses. Weather permitting, the central room opens to the park and community beyond. At night the space is beautifully illuminated, exposing the patrons before and after performances to the warm glow of the timbers.
The architects intended a sense of intimacy between audience and actors, which dramatizes the immersive experience for which Writers Theatre is well known. Salvaged brick from the previous, demolished building was laid up in an elaborate pattern to create an acoustical baffle and a friendly aural atmosphere. To maintain flexibility, the seats and stage are at the same level, encouraging multiple ways for the actors to enter and exit.
A pavilion, set on the green roof, offers alternative event spaces. This design is a collage of spaces and masses that result in a good deal of flexibility and multiple places to encounter supporters of the arts.
Taking a cue from the architects regarding theater history, “the Tudor era of wood construction coincides with the early modern period of English drama. During this time, timber-framed theatres such as The Globe and The Rose hoisted the debut performances of some of the seminal works of English-language theater.” (Building: Inside Studio Gang Architects exhibit)
The exposed heavy timber and glass walls, along with the polished concrete floors and stained wood, complete the language of materials.
The Writers Theatre is a work of creative elegance informed by meaning. It relates to the community in subtle ways without excess. This fine piece of architecture is prominent and visible — something of which Glencoe and the entire North Shore can be proud.
Garret Eakin is a practicing architect and journalist, and is an adjunct professor at the School of the Art Institute.