To paraphrase pop siren Olivia Newton-John, “Let me see your buildings talk.” This is the mantra of parents and their teenagers when they first set eyes on a campus. During high season, dozens of families a day visit a typical independent school or college campus with prospective students in tow, and their first impression often is the most telling and enduring one. What these visitors see through the car window are buildings and grounds, and the questions on their minds are urgent, even breathless: What kind of place is this? What are the people like? What do they value? Would I fit in?

Ideally, this initial panoramic view is akin to a well-crafted cover letter that reveals the essence of all that is to follow. It should have allure and contain inspiring details.

The first question, therefore, that school officials should ask themselves when contemplating campus improvements is, “How can our architecture help to tell our story?” Make no mistake, buildings talk, individually and in the aggregate. The trick is to get them to say all the right things.

Making Music Transparent

At the Hotchkiss School in Connecticut, the music program was far more important to the school than its aging, subterranean facilities implied. The quality of student performances was consistently excellent, but except for the occasional above-ground concerts in the school chapel, the musicians were out of sight to visitors and students alike. If any story of music at Hotchkiss was being told, it was the wrong story. So plans were undertaken to renovate an existing drama theater into a venue for musical performances, and expand it to provide practice rooms and a rehearsal hall.

The architect, headed by a lapsed violinist and intermittent piano player, were able to demonstrate that the high cost of renovations could better be invested in a new, all-glass music pavilion added onto the existing theater. It would more clearly express the importance of music and the arts at the school.
The result is a performance hall that not only doubles as an uplifting rehearsal space, but also puts music front and center. No one today is left wondering whether music plays an important role at Hotchkiss. In addition to elevating the arts and connecting them to students plying the corridors of the main building, the new centrally located facility has become a welcoming place for the surrounding community, which is invited to enjoy performances by the students as well as by visiting musicians.

Beyond its functional and symbolic role, the transparent music pavilion serves as an arresting addition to the school’s profile, adding a sense of visual diversity while gently mediating between the modern building to which it is attached and the school’s predominantly Georgian campus. Modern at first blush, the form and detailing evoke classical notions of a Georgian style conservatory. Its transparent glass walls also embrace the surrounding wooded hills and a nearby lake, highlighting another of the campus’ attractive assets and making nature an inspiring muse for the musicians. Now, the school is narrating clearly the story about its music program that it had wanted to tell all along.