CASE STUDY: Detroit School of Arts, Detroit

Owner: Detroit Public Schools
Architect: Hamilton Anderson Associates—Rainy Hamilton Jr., AIA, principal in charge; Kent Anderson, vice president; David Esparza, AIA, project manager; Tom Sherry, AIA, design lead; Paul Locher, AIA, project architect; Paul Weidl, AIA, design architect
Consultants: L&A Structural Engineers (structural); Albert Kahn Associates (mep); Kirkegaard Associates (acoustical); Schuler & Shook (theatrical); Archteck (broadcast telecommunication design); L.S. Brinker/Skanska Building USA (construction manager)

Exterior steel panels: Centria
Exterior curtain wall system: Kawneer
Glazing: Viracon and Advanced Glazing Limited
Green roof system: Hydrotech
Hollow metal doors: Ceco
Exit devices: Von Duprin
Anti-graffiti coating: Dumond Chemicals
Wood floor finishes: Dura Shield

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Culture Club
Two distinct curricula are skillfully choreographed to foster a beehive of professional-level arts activity
By David Sokol

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The story of the Detroit School of Arts’ gestation could be the subject of its own melodrama. The city school district had hired a joint-venture team that included architecture firm Hamilton Anderson Associates to design a replacement performing arts high school after passing a $1.5 billion bond measure in the 1994. Then, the state took over the school board, restructuring the governing body and repackaging the high school project. A happier chapter opened in 2000, when the new board asked Hamilton Anderson to bid once again. This time, the firm got the job on its own.

Although the six-story school is taller than many of its neighbors, its height is reduced at the building’s west end to relate to a nearby church. Photo © Balthazar Korab Ltd.

The architect couldn’t just dust off old plans, however. As the cast of characters shifted, so did the school’s program. The new $72.4 million Detroit School of Arts would also have to contain a communication and media arts curriculum. The change also meant a population jump from 500 to 1,200 students, and necessitated an approximate trebling of area to 300,000 square feet. The site—2.5 downtown acres donated by the Detroit Symphony Orchestra—did not grow with the scope of the program.

The architect used dynamically arranged fenestration and a variety of materials for the building skin, including brick, glass, and metal panels. Photo © Balthazar Korab Ltd.

Up rather than out
Hamilton Anderson had no other choice but to build upward. Vice President of Design Tom Sherry, AIA, admits that the firm’s six-story product “is very unique in Detroit, which is low-rise and spread out.”

Complicating the design assignment was a plan to combine two predecessor schools that couldn’t have been more different. A Fame type of atmosphere characterized one, while a hushed, collegial environment prevailed at the other. “There were positive layers of culture coming from each,” Sherry says. “We elected to organize the program to create dynamic interfaces between the two. It was a conscious effort to blend and elevate experience.”

An 800-seat theater with a fly loft and a 200-seat recital hall are just two of the many professional-level facilities contained within the Detroit School of Arts. The old arts high school lacked even an auditorium. Photo © Balthazar Korab Ltd.

Although the two schools were not ultimately combined, Hamilton Anderson deployed this approach for layering radio and television production into the performing arts program. Due to the facilities’ size and accessibility needs, the architect used the 800-seat auditorium and two large television studios to anchor the building, placing them at opposite ends of the ground floor.

Remaining large-scale spaces, like performance and rehearsal rooms, were located in the center of the building’s three “cores” and wrapped with sun-filled circulation and gallery space. Besides using this circulation as a daylight and acoustical buffer for the more controlled environments contained within, the design strategy moves students toward the center of the building for rehearsals, recitals, or exhibitions, instead of relegating the various curricula to separate pockets. Multi-tasking rooms also contribute to the mix. The black box theater, for example, is outfitted to perform as a third television studio.

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