Text description provided by the architects. Wendell Logan, leader of the jazz studies department at Oberlin College since 1973 died just six weeks after the Kohl Building, in many ways his building, opened. He lived to see his jazz program finally leave the basement of a deserted gymnasium locker room across campus and relocate to a pristine facility at the new heart of one of the world’s leading conservatories of music.
The brief for the facility was simple, but conflicted:
• Create a transformational project for the renowned jazz studies department at Oberlin; • Design a building that was acoustically isolated, while maintaining limitless access to natural light; • Ensure an intimate connection with the landscape, but build in a parking lot [an unconsidered site chosen in the course of our master planning effort]; • Establish a socially dynamic space that will bring musicians, faculty, students, and the community together.
Appended to the existing Minoru Yamasaki designed Conservatory of Music complex , the 37,000sf Kohl Building is arranged on 4 levels including a basement. In addition to housing the jazz studies department, it features a world-class recording studio, flexible rehearsal and performance spaces, teaching studios and practice rooms, an archive for the largest private jazz recording collection in America, and a rare collection of jazz photographs of the 1950’s. At the core of this program is a distributed series of informal, un-programmed public spaces. The building is organized, inside and out, to promote social engagement and creative exchange.
The project mediates between a vast expanse of asphalt to the East and the internalized white volumes of Yamasaki’s neo-gothic modernism to the West. Consequently the building brackets a landscape that serves both the college and community creating a one-eighth mile long axis extending south from Tappan Square, the historic center of Town. This axis becomes an entry plaza, drawing activity to the center of the building where it splits, continuing south or ascending the building as a series of steps and terraces leading to third floor roof gardens. Multi-story lobbies to either side of the plaza provide vertical access to all four levels. Below the plaza are student lockers and a public way, allowing the controlled movement of instruments from basement storage and archives to all points in the complex. Above is the Sky Bar, serving as the new social hub for the Conservatory and College. Together, this sequence of spaces offer a circulation loop around the new urban entry highlighted variably by gardens, borrowed views and intellectual loitering. The landscape, like the building, challenges notions of prescriptive use. Changes in level, material, and scale occur in, on, and around the building and can be seen as sculpture, function as seating, or be appropriated as performance venues.
The building’s environmental model, which achieved LEED Gold, finds synergies between program, use, and building systems. Fed through a geothermal heating and cooling system, radiant embedded plaster ceilings create a monolithic mass for acoustic isolation between levels; this reduces required duct sizes and sheet metal, minimizing acoustic breaches and increasing room volume through higher ceilings. A planted roof garden and event space atop the recording studio decreases water run-off while its mass eliminates potential sound transmission from airlines on a flight path to Cleveland Hopkins Airport. The project’s deployment of environmental systems to address unique demands establishes opportunities far beyond LEED criteria. This project aspires to re-establish Oberlin’s rich history of architecture as a generator of new educational, cultural and social possibilities.