Lafayette College Arts Plaza

"Urban unfill" is the term that Spillman Farmer Architects uses to describe its "non-building" for Lafayette College in Easton, Pennsylvania. The Arts Plaza transforms an old auto-repair facility into a raw, open-air space for the school's art students. Architectural elements – brick piers, mesh boxes, wood beams – give the plaza an urban presence and hark back to the site's former life. The architects at Spillman Farmer answered a few questions about the project.
Street view ( Photo ©: Barry Halkin )
What were the circumstances of receiving the commission for this project?

Lafayette College began the Arts Plaza project as part of a larger comprehensive planning effort to better integrate the Williams Arts Campus and the City of Easton. The Plaza acts as the point of interaction, and as a gateway to Lafayette’s Williams Arts Campus. As architects and planners, we examined the history of the site and the economic responsibility inherent in rehabilitation of existing buildings. As design professionals, we helped project stakeholders understand the beauty and potential of the existing structures. Purpose and resourcefulness built these original industrial buildings, and although the buildings had outlived their industrial purpose, each presented a perfect framework for new adaptation. Now, the Plaza meets new requirements while still providing high-quality space that appeals to the creative class.
Plaza view ( Photo ©: Barry Halkin )
Please provide an overview of the project.

The Lafayette College Arts Plaza is a raw, open-air space for the arts. This outdoor black box theater hosts a wide array of artistic endeavors. The structure transforms an abandoned auto-repair facility into a dynamic outdoor teaching space that responds to the built and natural environment.

The Arts Plaza acts as “urban unfill,” opening up new connections between the site and nature. The site actually spans the Bushkill Creek, part of the confluence of waterways that define the City of Easton. While the site had been a barrier between the creek and the community, the new Arts Plaza deconstructs these barriers to connect people and nature.
Street view ( Photo ©: Barry Halkin )
What are the main ideas and inspirations influencing the design of the building?

From very early on in the project process, we approached the Arts Plaza as a “non-building,” or, as we affectionately term it, “urban unfill.” The building is an exercise in material clarity; a restrained palette of bricks, steel, and existing wood members combine to form discrete experiences for the Plaza’s inhabitants. A delicately detailed steel armature announces the project at an urban scale. Clinker brick monoliths create a threshold and mimic the rhythm of the neighboring building. A steel-framed oculus in the slab creates a moment of auditory surprise. Together, these elements create a layered, material-based experience for visitors.
Plaza view ( Photo ©: Barry Halkin )
How does the building relate to contemporary architectural trends, be it sustainability, technology, etc.?

Although we have become a fashion-conscious industry, we design without relying on contemporary trends. The fundamental principles of critical regionalism guide our buildings, rather than style or abstract concept. At the Arts Plaza, we carefully subtracted and repurposed this urban intervention to display clear evidence of how it was made. The end result is an authentic and highly adaptable public space fundamentally grounded in our region’s unique history and context.
Detail at sidewalk ( Photo ©: Barry Halkin )
Were there any significant challenges that arose during the project? If so, how did you respond to them?

The site’s position directly above the Bushkill Creek presented a unique challenge. While the auto-repair shop that had occupied the site completely masked the Creek’s position, we aimed to reestablish a connection between the street and the Creek through our intervention. The Plaza’s concrete slab presented a particular construction issue, as can be expected of a poured concrete surface directly above a body of water. Beyond the construction challenges, though, the site presented an urban opportunity: a discrete open space in the already-dense fabric of Easton. A carefully choreographed sequence of experiences helps to encourage new connections in the space: a clear threshold, intentional restraint, and thoughtfully deployed physical connections help the space communicate its natural context to its users.
Plaza view ( Photo ©: Barry Halkin )
How would you describe the architecture of Pennsylvania and how does the building relate to it?

Pennsylvania is a state with unique topography, waterways, and landscape. The architecture of Pennsylvania is equally unique and steeped in a history ranging from early European influences and Native American ingenuity to the resourcefulness of our industrial and agrarian buildings. The places we design take their cues from this unique history. More importantly, they attempt to achieve a lasting aesthetic through an architecture that is rational, purposeful, and honest. Much like the agricultural buildings and industrial machines that loom in our landscape, the Arts Plaza is conceived with a lasting resolve. The Plaza’s native vegetation will eventually fill its skeletal frame, while the sounds of the creek will amplify in every corner, eventually becoming its own Pennsylvania landscape, even in this urban setting.

Email interview conducted by John Hill.
Site plan
Section
Exterior before
Interior before
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Lafayette College Arts Plaza
2013
Easton, Pennsylvania

Client
Lafayette College

Architect
Spillman Farmer Architects
Bethlehem, PA

Design Principal
Joseph N. Biondo, AIA

Managing Principal
James G. Whildin, AIA

Project Architect
Wayne F. Stitt, AIA

Project Team
William  Deegan, Randy Galiotto RA, Sierra Krause, Clint Newton III, Elliot Nolter, Mark Piell, Barry Pell, Patrick Ruggiero, Joanne Titcomb IIDA, Salvatore Verrastro AIA FCSI, Dave Wrigley CSI, Patrick Ytsma RA, Erin McGuinness LEED AP

Structural Engineer
Barry Isett & Associates

Electrical Engineer
Lehigh Valley Engineering

Construction Manager
Whiting-Turner Contracting Company

Civil Engineer
McTish, Kunkle & Associates

Cable Mesh Systems Consultant
Officium

Specifications Consultant
Officium

Plaza Sculpture
Karl Stirner

Site Area
7,000 sf

Building Area
7,000 sf

Photographs
Barry Halkin

Drawings
Spillman Farmer Architects


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