- Project Principals: Dan Wheeler, Joy Meek
- Project Team Members: Dung Luu
- MEP: Design Build
- City: Chicago
- Country: United States
Text description provided by the architects. Marwen was founded 28 years ago to educate and inspire underserved young people through the visual arts. The organization has been fueled by two simple but powerful ideas throughout its history—that making art can transform lives, and that every young person should have opportunities to do so. Despite clear evidence that the skills and dispositions acquired through arts learning are essential to a student’s preparation for success in college, work, and life, inequities in access to the arts have only grown more acute since Marwen’s founding in 1987.
At least 24,000 Chicago Public Schools students—six percent of the student population—have limited exposure to weekly arts instruction or certified arts instructors. Equitable access to instructors across schools remains uneven. Only 55% of CPS schools that have an arts instructor met the recommended 1:350 instructor-to-student ratio in 2014.
Marwen serves nearly 900 CPS students each year through its various arts programs, which are offered free of charge. Students come from 300 of Chicago’s 664 public schools and from 53 of the city’s 57 zip codes. In 2014 Marwen recognized that too many young people still lacked access to creative opportunities that could make an impact on their lives. In response to this growing need, Marwen committed to an ambitious goal: serve 30% more young people by 2018, for a total of 1,100 unique students in their core programs.
To accomplish this goal, Marwen expanded its facility to deepen its role as a nationally recognized model of arts education. Situated on four floors of a heavy timber manufacturing building in Chicago’s River North neighborhood, the program includes a main public gallery for student work, an alumni gallery, library, administrative offices, and nine state-of-the-art instructional studios for photography, graphic design, film, animation, fabric, and ceramics.
The expansion included a new entry and parking court, a multiuse loggia space, and an additional 15,000 square feet of new and/or renovated studio spaces, as well as new windows, HVAC, roof, and building signage.
For 15 years, Marwen had no physical, public presence. This year, Marwen announced itself to the city, having purchased the industrial loft building in which it had been renting space and expanding its site to create a fully realized arts campus. With its new presence, Marwen conveys to the public its thoughtfully composed mission and vision.
Concurrent with its physical expansion, Marwen unveiled a public awareness campaign that placed Marwen student work prominently near mass transit hubs. Coupled with community outreach, new bridges were forged between Marwen and the communities that it serves.
With the addition of the loggia and the new entry leading to the main gallery, Marwen now has a greater interior/exterior connection, which allows art to spill out of the building, into the parking court and plaza. The landscaped entry court helps students and visitors know they’ve entered Marwen before they’ve set foot in the building.
To reach the instructional studios, students encounter artwork created by their peers and teachers in the loggia and main gallery, fueling their imagination and creating an aspiration to see their work displayed in the galleries as well.
Safe Harbor for Learning.
The existing building was mined for its beauty. Floors were gutted to expose a raw structure organized by heavy timber columns. Tooled concrete floors were poured to provide appropriate sound deadening and to complement the existing brick masonry and Douglas fir beams. The architectural palette is spare and quiet, allowing artwork to be the focus.
Because many Marwen students travel great distances, and at times through perilous means, the architecture attempts to provide a safe harbor for students, while at the same time liberating them to explore. Within this space, materials and elements become part of an instructional language that is intended to be “read” by future generations of artists, designers, and architects.
Like art, architecture is something to explore and to learn from. This may be the first consciously designed space some students have encountered. As architects, we must have the optimism to hope that good design has the power to inspire. That a simple, artfully expressed stair, a thoughtfully placed piece of ductwork, or the proportioning of a material palette will be absorbed by the inhabitants, whether explicitly or implicitly.
Some Marwen students have few support systems and little encouragement, other than their own quest for making. When schools cut arts programs, they sometimes take away the only thing that gets some students excited about learning. Marwen’s community supports discovery and self-expression. The new campus aims to be a cohesive learning community that serves as a cornerstone of arts education and is accessible to diverse communities throughout Chicago.
Marwen also provides free college and career counseling, leveraging relationships with universities and college networks and making them accessible to students. The recent expansion allows for Marwen to support more students and their families in the college process by creating new spaces for students and parents to research education programs, as well as a conference room for one-on-one meetings.
The design allows students to feel both safe and empowered. Few CPS students can say their work is on display in a gallery, hanging alongside professional artwork. Gallery and critique spaces showcase student work on every floor and allow for impromptu discussions and social interactions to take place. This lets students know their work is valued and not child’s play.
By valuing the work in this way, instructors hope students’ experiences will extend beyond Marwen’s walls and impact their daily lives and their communities, and set them up for a future of success.