The new Wolfe Center for the Arts at Bowling Green State University (BGSU) — the first building to open in the U.S. by the Oslo-based firm Snøhetta — takes you completely by surprise. It's a shimmering metallic wedge that rises out of its prairielike northwest Ohio terrain as though it were a sci-fi apparition. A green blanket of turf rides up part of its back to a second-story terrace edged with classrooms, blurring the distinction between ground and building. The fly loft for a proscenium theater inside rises higher still in the center of the sloping mass like a mountainous crag. The Snøhetta team treated the 98,000-square-foot building like a boulder carried and deposited by the glacier that once buried the region and eventually created the Great Lakes. The firm didn't want to echo the Midwestern horizon in the manner of the repeated horizontals of Frank Lloyd Wright's Prairie Houses, says Vanessa Kassabian, the director of design in Snøhetta's New York office and project architect for Wolfe. Instead, the designers created a second focal point by tilting their building upward out of the earth in a way that recalls the firm's Alexandria Library in Egypt, the pivotal 1989 commission that brought Snøhetta international recognition. 'As the building emerges, it draws your eye up into the sky and gives you more of an uplifted feeling,' says Kassabian.
Inside the Wolfe Center, which houses the university's theater and film departments, a soaring, two-story lobby leads to a grand staircase and social-gathering spaces flooded with daylight that spills in from large, west-facing windows and a skylight. The staircase — one of the building's signature features — calls attention to itself as a crisp sculptural object in architectural concrete that invites students to use it for circulation and as a gently sloping bleacher for hanging out and people-watching. A pair of east-west corridors on the first and second levels of the building extend from the upper and lower lobbies to flank the large central volume containing the building's primary, 400-seat theater, an intimate, enveloping space with excellent acoustics and sightlines. Skylights and axial vistas along the corridors make it easy to find two smaller stages, plus studios for film and dance, general-purpose classrooms, and faculty offices. Also key to the scheme's legibility is a large, skylighted passageway that cuts north-south through the center of the building, creating an internal street that invites casual encounters throughout the day and links the theaters to a large backstage scenery shop.