Spillman Farmer Architects Completes Lafayette College Arts Plaza in Easton, PA

Words: Bronzella Cleveland
Lafayette College Arts Plaza
The 7,000-sq.-ft. Lafayette College Arts Plaza is an open-air space designed by Spillman Farmer Architects at a former auto-repair facility.

The American Institute of Architects (AIA), Pennsylvania Chapter awarded a 2013 Citation of Merit to the recently completed Lafayette College Arts Plaza in Easton, PA. Spillman Farmer Architects (SFA) of Bethlehem, PA served as the project's architect.

The Citation of Merit recognizes projects that represent excellence through exceptional details or special design aspects. The Arts Plaza was also awarded a Special Mention in the Architecture + Urban Transformation category in the 2013 Architizer A+ Awards.

The $1.7-million, 7,000-sq.-ft. Arts Plaza is a raw, open-air space for the arts at Lafayette College. The project transformed a former auto-repair facility into a dynamic outdoor teaching space that responds to its natural environment and built context. Designed as an outdoor black box theater, the plaza hosts a wide variety of planned and spontaneous artistic endeavors, including performance art, visual art exhibits, and small group musical performances.

"It was a series of vacant buildings. The college took on the responsibility of redeveloping these utilitarian facilities into a large arts education and exposition hub for the entire Lehigh Valley region," Spillman Farmer Design Principal Joseph N. Biondo, AIA, said.

"The facility had been built over a creek, and while the structure was in good shape, the facade was deteriorated. We saw an opportunity to create an open-air teaching space.

"Unlike many urban developments, which are conceptualized as 'infill' of an existing context, the Arts Plaza is an urban 'unfill' project. The existing building had solid walls that blocked the relationship between the site and the community. We removed these walls to create new types of connections in and around the site, bringing together the Easton community, the college, the natural environment, the streetscape, and local history," Biondo continued. "These interactions encourage a focus on user experience, material richness, spatial transparency, and sensory stimulation."

At its core, the project is a distillation of the existing structure. The facility's concrete platform foundation and timber frame, both salvaged and re-utilized elements of the former building, are complemented by newly introduced masonry and steel. The existing structure and new interventions work together, telling a story of history and use, while creating a new identity for the space.

The Arts Plaza introduces new materials, such as brick and steel, in unconventional ways. They lend a tactile, experiential quality to the space, while honoring the city's prevailing architecture as required by the Easton Historic Review Board, which had to approve the design. The plaza's masonry walls are clad with clinker brick, a cast off of the brickmaking process, whose curvature and malformations are accented, rather than minimized. The brick's curvature and imperfections provide texture and counterbalance the well-organized, restrained space.

Lafayette College Arts Plaza
The cleaned and refinished timber structure of the former garage preserved the 'phantom' of the building for visual impact and human scale.

The 3,200-sq.-ft, clinker-clad walls are 29 feet high. The project features 30,000 Mohawk clinker bricks manufactured by Colonial Brick, the only manufacture of this type of bricks in the nation. The Mohawk bricks are 4 inches wide, 2 ¼ inches high, and 8 inches long. The Mazella Group served as the masonry contractor.

The project physically spans Bushkill Creek, one of the waterways that are vital to the city's history, and one of Easton's most important natural elements.  Biondo explained that the design allows for connections between the street front, the plaza, and the creek. To take further advantage of this connection, an oculus was cut into the plaza's floor slab that allows visitors to view and hear the creek below. A steel frame for the oculus repurposes demolition remnants. The bubbling sounds of water are amplified by this opening, adding to the sensory experience of the creek, the displayed art, and the surrounding structure.

New masonry monoliths express the plaza's streetfront. These obelisks rely only on the traditional craft of stacking brick to create openings and provide a structural, sculptural form. In contrast to the existing timber structure, new structural steel elements between the monoliths provide a scale and presence appropriate to the plaza's urban context. These masonry columns and steel elements work together to create a rhythm at the street edge. Their scale and material echo the neighboring Williams Visual Arts Building. Their spacing continues the street’'s rhythm, while creating openness and inviting movement into the plaza.

The project incorporates two cubic structural steel armatures, each draped with a veil of stainless steel mesh. These transparent, ghost-like structures complement the masonry monoliths and reflect the dimensions and rhythm of windows of the nearby Williams Building.  The delicate details of the steel mesh, carefully lit at night and adorned with climbing vegetation, organically complete the forms and bring a natural softness to the hard-edged, industrial streetfront. This effect is reinforced in the winter, when ice and snow build up on the mesh.

Lafayette College Arts Plaza
New masonry monoliths express the plaza's streetfront and create a rhythm and scale that echo the neighboring Williams Visual Arts Building.

As the project neared completion, the college decided to connect the Williams Building to the Arts Plaza and opted for a new entrance located within the clinker brick-faced side wall. Spillman Farmer created a new opening in an existing corridor inside the Williams Building. The design team used this new, final element of the plaza to introduce a three-dimensional, human-scale element into the wall. The new entrance features a gabled frame constructed entirely of clinker brick. The new opening's undulating lines highlight the texture and irregularity of the brick.

In addition to Spillman Farmer, other project team members included Whiting-Turner Contracting Co., construction manager; Lehigh Valley Engineering, electrical engineer; Barry Isett and Associates, structural engineer; and McTish, Kunkel & Associates, civil engineer.

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