Correction to This Article
A March 5 Arts photo of the Two River Theater Company in Red Bank, N.J., should been credited: Copyright Peter Mauss  Esto.
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Little Cause for Applause

"The Client Did It" could be the title of an architectural murder mystery, but in this case, it's the simplest answer to the question of why Hardy changed his design. Of course, at a large academic institution such as Georgetown, determining who exactly the client is -- who makes the critical design decisions -- is not always easy.

Hardy states flat-out that one particular donor, Los Angeles businessman Lou Gonda, "wanted a nice, old-fashioned building like the one he got." University architect Alan Brangman confirms that Gonda played a role in the aesthetic changes, and points out that all the appropriate folks in the university hierarchy -- president, provost, senior vice president, etc. -- also approved the changes.

The thing is, it shouldn't have happened. When you hire an architect of Hardy's caliber and experience, the best idea is simply to let him follow his best instincts. There are limits, of course, but Hardy certainly did not overstep them with his lively patterns. Had it been built in the way he preferred, Georgetown might have gotten the "jewel on the campus" that, Brangman says, everybody wanted from the get-go.

(The primary donor to the $30.8 million project, let it be noted, is the bank MBNA, which rather politely stepped aside when it came to naming rights. The center is dedicated to Royden B. Davis, the Jesuit priest who was dean of Georgetown College from 1966 to 1989. Davis became a staunch believer in arts education when he took a sculpture course while he was dean; some of his plaster sketches and small bronzes are on view in the Gonda Theatre lobby.)

The Davis Center is a hybrid -- part old, part new. The new parts are added onto (and into) the old building, a modest beaux-arts brick structure built in 1906 to serve as the university's gymnasium. When McDonough Gym opened in 1951, the Ryan Building, as it was then called, was converted to office use.

If the new exteriors defer overmuch to this decisively average building, inside things get better. Everything fits together like pieces in a complex three-dimensional puzzle. There are two theaters -- a 265-seat main stage and a flexible "black box" -- along with rehearsal spaces, classrooms, faculty offices, dressing rooms, and costume and carpentry shops.

The lobby is vintage Hardy -- a mix of the old with the new and the practical. Along with partners Malcolm Holzman and Norman Pfeiffer, the New York architect was using exposed ductwork as decoration in theaters, schools and even offices as far back as the 1960s. It was even considered quite a radical thing to do then. At the Davis Center, the ducts complement the long-hidden steel trusses of the old gym, and a curving partition of backlit plastic adds a certain contemporary elegance. (The firm Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer Associates amicably disbanded in 2003. Hardy's own company now goes by a mouthful moniker, H3 Hardy Collaboration Architecture.)

All by itself, the theater is a gem -- intimate and warm, with brightly patterned plush seats set in a steep rake. Even in the back row, a viewer feels close to the stage. Here too, as in many of Hardy's theaters, much of the charm derives from exposed functional stuff. Lighting catwalks cross the room directly above the seating bowl, with gently curved wooden acoustical underlays softening their presence. Acoustics, meanwhile, are superb -- voice amplification is not needed.

An architecture critic has to remember that this is, after all, a teaching facility and that, as such, it is first-rate. Up until now, Georgetown's theater department has led a vagabond existence in borrowed spaces around the campus. Artistic Director Maya Roth thinks the building's central location -- just to the northwest of landmark Healy Hall and the historic campus core -- symbolizes a new "engagement of the arts" with the curriculum and other aspects of university life.

Roth also notes that after rehearsal rooms and other key facilities were added to the program -- Hardy credits Gonda with influencing those changes -- the building got more and more useful. "I am just very grateful that the inside of the building turned out as it did, and from that point of view, the last design turned out to be the best design."

But my, what an architectural opportunity was lost on the outside. It is hard to conceive of a situation in which moving from an exuberant design to a dull one is a good idea. On this Georgetown hill, for this fine little teaching theater, it was a very, very great shame.


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