Dialogs: Architecture Collides With Theater in Steppenwolf Podcast, “Collision,” Featuring AS+GG’s Gordon Gill

Theater and architecture share a creative bond in this edition of Steppenwolf Theatre’s Half Hour podcast series. The podcast features Gordon Gill, the architect for Steppenwolf’s new Arts and Education Center, in conversation with ensemble member James Vincent Meredith. The new building, which will combine a theater space (the 400-seat Round Theatre) with education and community engagement activities, is expected to be open this fall. The building is built on the original surface parking lot adjacent to and just south of Steppenwolf’s space at 1650 and 1700 N. Halsted St. Architect's rendering of the new building. Image courtesy Steppenwolf Theatre. Architecture, the sturdy art concerned with the design of physical space for people, has been  compared to other art forms before. “Music is liquid architecture; architecture is frozen music,” Johann Wolfgang von Goethe famously said (although the quotation is sometimes attributed to Friedrich Schiller). Goethe, the 18th century literary critic and author of Faust, was interested in both art and science and saw them as “compatible disciplines linked by common imaginative processes.” In the Steppenwolf podcast, Meredith begins by asking Gill about his creative process and how he came to be an artist who “tells stories with your buildings.” Gill agrees that “there is an affinity between what we do.” “When did you start to believe that you could create places for people to move around in,” Meredith asks. Gill describes how his interest in building started when he was quite young and began drawing buildings. “I would take crayons and draw what I thought were buildings, over and over again…. It got to the point where my parents would buy me bags of cement and sent me to a corner of our yard…. So I would mix the concrete and build little blocks of buildings.”  He said he learned later that when he was 6 years old, “my kindergarten teacher told my mother that her son would be an architect.” He also noted that his father said, “Wherever you go, plant a tree.” That maxim has become a focal point of his work. His firm, AS+GG or Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture, brings elements of nature into their buildings.  People in cities crave this, he said. “On the one hand, we crave technology and we love innovation and we like making amazing things.… But at the same time … human beings find nature to be their most comforting environment. Almost impossible to compete with nature from an architectural standpoint. And so, what do you do? I have this job to design buildings and cities, but at the same time I know that those who inhabit them crave natural environments and they can't live without them.” Gordon Gill. Image courtesy AS+GG. Meredith asks Gill to talk about when “Steppenwolf knocks on your door and how does that work? How does the process happen? “ Gill said the project started many years ago, when Gill was asked to meet with Martha Lavey, the late artistic director, and another executive. They discussed a general approach, not a specific project. There were more meetings , he said, but never a project brief in the sense of anything programmatic, like how many square feet would be used for what. The program was “more spiritual,” Gill said. Later Gill’s team began to meet with artistic director Anna Shapiro (who will step down at the end of August) and David Schmitz, the executive director. Charcoalblue, a London-based theater and design consultancy firm, is the design lead for the theater space within the complex. Charcoalblue was brought on at the project launch, along with AS+GG, as I reported when Steppenwolf first announced the project in a 2014 press conference. Meredith talked about his first walkthrough in the new complex. When they came into the lobby, his guide, Claire Haupt, Steppenwolf’s assistant production manager, said, “So this is where the collision happens.”  Where did that idea of collision come from? Meredith asked Gill. That was “100 percent Anna Shapiro,” Gill said. He had asked Shapiro at the beginning what the building is about, where does theater occur, because both Frank Galati and Martha Lavey had referred to “where theater occurs.” “She wrote me an email that … was about her idea of where theater occurs. That it is in the space between you and me. And it's not formal. She referred to it as a collision. And she said that collisions can be scary. They can be threatening. They can be joyous. But they always happen in an environment where you feel safe. You never feel uncomfortable or want to disengage. And I basically took that and translated it into architecture.” This collision is facilitated because the lobbies of the three buildings will be linked—from 1700 and the Front Bar through the original 1650 building and the new Arts and Education Center. (We should acknowledge that collision is the opposite of our ongoing 18 months of social distancing and staying apart from people.) The design is intended to spark conversations, accidental meetings between disparate groups of people, and a sense of intimacy in the appreciation of the art of theater. The discussion turned to the “layers of narrative” in building materials. Building materials, the structure itself, even the skylight, all have a role in the building and the “dynamic relationship” among the parts, Gill said. Meredith noted that in offstage work areas, floor coverings were chosen to be comfortable for people who are on their feet all day. The building’s façade, Gill pointed out, is transparent, not hiding behind a mask. The building’s purpose is clear. And it’s respectful to the neighborhood. “It was very important for us to have a relationship with a neighborhood. You know, it’s a neighborhood theater, for Pete's sakes, right? And it's a city theater, and … I'm just very proud of the project. I think it's gonna be a lot of fun for a lot of people.” In a final lightning round of questions, Meredith asked, what do you daydream about? Gill responded, “I dream about a space. I dream about a space that is cognitive. I dream about a space that humans live in that understands what they need and is in balance with the natural environment. I don't even know what that means. But I'm working on it.” On the AS+GG website, Gill describes his practice as a relationship between formal design and performance; the basis of his practice is: “Form follows performance.” AS+GG was formed in 2006 by partners Smith, Gill and Robert Forest, all former architects at the iconic Chicago-based firm, Skidmore Owings & Merrill. AS+GG has designed many prominent international structures, including the Jeddah Tower in Saudi Arabia, currently under construction. You can listen to the Collision podcast, as well as others in the series, here. Did you enjoy this post? Please consider supporting Third Coast Review’s arts and culture coverage by making a donation. Choose the amount that works best for you, and know how much we appreciate your support! 
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Nancy S Bishop

Nancy S. Bishop is publisher and Stages editor of Third Coast Review. She’s a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and a 2014 Fellow of the National Critics Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center. You can read her personal writing on pop culture at nancybishopsjournal.com, and follow her on Twitter @nsbishop. She also writes about film, books, art, architecture and design.