Milligan Arts Building,The Thacher School

Barton Phelps & Associates - Milligan Arts Building,<br/>The Thacher School
"In 2001 the search for an architect prompted some discussion about what sort of design would be suitable for Thacher. Goldilocks might have understood the debate: a desire for something not too hot (modern) and not too cold (traditional) - or is that vice versa? - but just right; in other words, something that expressed Thacher values. I, for one, thought that somehow it ought to be modest but memorable, which you could say was completely contradictory and not very helpful. All agreed that the landscape, the views, and outdoor connections were the keys to everything and that an architect needed to acknowledge this first. Barton Phelps got it right away. He and his firm understood the School's ranch DNA- taking inspiration from what he calls “the angular unity and sculptural potential of California barns.” And they closely studied campus patterns and view corridors as well as program needs before coming up with their wonderful two-part invention."

Daniel Gregory
On Campus: A Design View, Thacher Magazine. Fall, 2009

Milligan Arts Building, The Thacher School
Ojai, California

Capturing Landscape:

Set between mountain range and coastal valley, the hillside campus of this 115 year-old boarding school is a 24 / 7 academic community of 235 students, 40 faculty, and 140 horses. Demanding studies combine with rugged outdoor life on ranch-like grounds expressive of school philosophy. Insertion of the Arts Building and Commons into its historic core prompted evaluation both of the existing campus layout and the extraordinary power of the surrounding terrain - a quality often un-recognized in earlier buildings - and offered a chance to show how to take better advantage of this remarkable landscape.

Exploiting Building / Site Relationships: One goal was to demonstrate the new buildings' ability to maximize usefulness of adjoining outdoor spaces and to enhance the campus experience. American campus tradition treats outdoor spaces as functional / symbolic components of an ideal landscape and a source of institutional identity, but how does this work in mountainous terrain? On this site the semi-arid ecology and looming mountain peaks bring to mind the Greek landscape and with it, ancient planning strategies aimed at establishing clear relationships between sacred buildings and prominent topographic features to heighten awareness of the natural world and people's place in it. The setting of the running track at this school looks a lot like the one at Delphi.

Double-functioning space: Two building programs are treated as one to enhance efficiency and avoid redundant spaces. In addition to relaxed spaces for student, faculty, alumni, and conference use, the Commons provides lobby / reception / rest room facilities for events in either building. Lower level music practice rooms are adjacent to the stage and rehearsal rooms of the Arts Building. Circulation is concentrated in a sky-lit central corridor ("socio-petal space") interpreted like a Parisian shopping arcade with café, post office, school store. It doubles as a gallery for student work or traveling exhibitions. A tack- board kiosk, ("The Toad") provides pinup information, internet access, and soft drinks. The adjacent multi-purpose room expands the café for events.

A Curricular Shift: As a multi-use performing arts center, the Arts Building, promotes increased student participation in arts programs. The 450-seat auditorium has mid-range acoustics for music, speech, drama, dance, and cinema. Its asymmetrical entry, cross aisle, and separate lighting patterns allow the lower portion of the house (300 seats) to be used for daily assembly with the intimacy of a smaller room. Overhead doors at the rear of the house open for natural ventilation and horseback seating. Interiors are intentionally plain. Exposed structure, ladders, catwalks, and lighting balconies recall the school's long-gone Rough House which combined gymnasium calisthenics and scary equipment in a kind of male adolescent exhaustion machine.

Clarifying and Capturing: The buildings resolve a conflicted part of the campus plan and shape a space that accommodates intermission crowds, casual student use, and ceremonial functions and above, cuts a new view corridor to the west. The Arts Building borders a venerated triangular playing field then cranks to align with the north/south grid of the central campus and form a strong corner for the open lawn to the north. The Commons anchors the new project to the old Pergola at the center of the school. Its cantilevered deck and window wall afford a sweeping overlook of the valley. Building alignments and tall windows in the auditorium, rehearsal rooms, and café make distant mountain views the focus of major spaces.

Sustainability and Regional Vernacular: Vernacular building forms and materials enclose a technically complex program, responding to climate and natural features in a way that unifies the larger landscape. Contemporary spatial concepts, detailing, construction, and planting and lighting design are overlaid. Orientation, daylight penetration, roof overhangs and sun screens, grading and foundation design, natural ventilation / HVAC systems, and materials selections all reflect a balance between limiting construction cost and maximizing life-cycle performance. Stucco, architectural concrete, metal siding and roofing predominate. Client-requested wood siding is used sparingly.

Photography: Benny Chan, Fotoworks