Against the backdrop of a midnight sky, the glowing box atop the Arthur Miller Theatre pulsates gently in the wind. A steel cage elegantly juts out of the concrete structure, exposing bare material and crude connections. Even though the cold evening wind whips my scarf about and penetrates my coat, the half-finished building sits peaceful and silent – not minding the harsh, North Campus conditions.
Construction can be ugly and tedious. Detours and dust are often disruptive, and neon orange is nobody’s favorite color. Yet sometimes under-construction, prenatal buildings are as beautiful and majestic as their adult counterparts. Getting the chance to watch a building being conceived, and ultimately born, is almost as breathtakingly remarkable as watching the sun set over the ocean. In both cases, we know what will happen but still cannot divert our eyes. They are both simply mesmerizing scenes. The Arthur Miller Theatre, currently being erected just north of Pierpont Commons, is a prime example of this unexpected architectural beauty.
Dedicated to the great playwright Arthur Miller, the theater that is under construction and designed by Kuwabara Payne McKenna Blumberg Architects of Canada will surely enrich the North Campus both architecturally and culturally. Today, however, I am not interested in what it will be; I am interested in what it is. Without its skin, the building shows the true nature its form. Clean, cubic volumes of concrete mass intersect each other while a steel skeleton reaches into the space beyond. These materials are raw and unadulterated and, for some reason, the brisk, winter air makes the shapes appear even crisper.
The building’s voids are temporarily covered with translucent tarps that carelessly overlap one another. At night, the lanterns burn bright from within the structure, bringing an ambience of tranquility to the surrounding area. Ever so gently, these tarps sway back and forth in accordance with the chilling wind, and the building appears to be breathing in the moonlight. Deep in slumber, the Arthur Miller Theatre rests until the dawn breaks and the workers return. Beautifully incomplete, the building sleeps.
Waiting to be finished, the building is actually not a building at all. No inhabitants can enter, and it serves no function. Without any immediate purpose, the structure is solely sculptural. The debate over form versus function can fade into eternity as far as this architecture in utero is concerned. Here, there is only form and thus the form prevails. These gracefully large sculptures will soon have a life and responsibility, but until then they will wait with patient dignity.
An equally appealing aspect of these works-in-progress is the mystery and activity surrounding them. Each day the construction crew diligently crafts and molds the building into shape, and each day we wonder what the next step will be. As an audience, we are watching a show that continues for over a year and each day is a new episode. Passing the Pierpont bus stop and looking north, one might wonder what will become of those massive steel beams. What is that worker doing with that crane? How will this become the rendered image displayed in the newspaper? Part of the magic is watching the plan unfold before us, piece by piece and day by day. There is a coordination to be admired, and there is a path that we may not see. Ever increasingly the building matures before our eyes and leaves us wondering what is to come. This aura of mystery would not be possible if not for another great feature of the mid-construction building: transparency.
Most of the products we purchase are created beyond the limitations of our sight. Imported from China or produced in a factory and probably both, we cannot watch these products being born like we can a building. Because it is possible to gaze upon the construction process from foundation to interior trim, we are that much more connected with the structure. An undeniable intimacy extends across the construction fence and out into the community by the simple virtue of visibility. There are no secrets. We observe the inner organs of the building before they are covered with the structural skeleton and finally clad in its impermeable casing. When the Arthur Miller Theatre’s red ribbon is finally cut and the project is completed, we will have with us the memory of its struggle to become finished. We experienced the journey together; we saw the idea become a reality.
Next time you pass by Arthur Miller Theatre, or any other building in mid-construction, absorb the essence of its life. The building is growing and will be completed before you know it. After that, it will be a regular building, and you’ve seen plenty of those. So catch the moment of the unfinished, appreciate the beauty of its form, and wonder about its future. The moment will not last long.