- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 27, 2009

Motorists driving past the busy intersection of Georgia Avenue and East-West Highway in Silver Spring may look up to notice dancers leaping behind the huge window of the contemporary building on the corner.

This movement well represents the lively architecture of the recently opened Montgomery College Performing Arts Center on the western edge of the school’s Takoma Park/Silver Spring campus. Designed by architect David Greenbaum of the District’s SmithGroup, the two-theater venue embraces the challenges of its site with well-choreographed twists and turns appreciated from the car windshield as much as from the sidewalk.

The 58,000-square-foot complex is more than just another classroom building. It anchors the southern end of Silver Spring’s arts and entertainment district to serve the community as well as the campus with theaters for performances and films.

On Feb. 26 and 27, the Israel Ballet will pirouette on the center’s larger stage to inaugurate the building with its first major public event of the 2010 season.

The theaters also supply much-needed spaces for lectures, presentations and graduation ceremonies for this branch of Montgomery College. Classrooms, rehearsal space and workshops in the building will help attract music, dance and drama students, and boost enrollment. An art gallery off the lobby can be used for meetings as well as to draw visitors to temporary exhibits.

While creating a front door to the college, the arts center improves a transitional area dotted with auto repair shops, car washes and a Comfort Inn. These surroundings aren’t very inspirational, but Mr. Greenbaum nevertheless tried to be contextual in cladding the sides of the theaters in brick to harmonize with adjacent buildings, including the next-door Health Sciences Center opened by the college in 2004.

The deference seems only gratuitous in such a contemporary structure and the masonry weighs on the art center’s dynamic shapes of metal and glass.

At the front along Georgia Avenue, the architecture becomes more inventive. Mr. Greenbaum cleverly disguised the apparent bulk of the performance halls by arranging the lobby and classrooms into a glazed frontispiece. This two-level bar provides views into the building while buffering traffic noise from the theaters.

Look closely and the glass literally becomes a curtain wall. Covering the panes are ceramic frit patterns resembling the fabric folds of stage drapery.

Moving south along Georgia Avenue, the facade ends in an exclamation point, a sharply tapered stair tower sheathed in metal panels along its sides to provide places for future signage. This vertical projection rises to meet the adjacent Health Sciences Center and frame the entrance to this side of the college campus.

Adding to the strong presence on the street is the glass-fronted dance studio at the opposite corner of the building. This boxy wing is shifted away from Georgia Avenue to align with the diagonal of East-West Highway. Its big window and an electronic sign positioned near the roofline help to grab attention with movement and light.

Noticeably illuminated, too, is the “egg” housing the box office and concession stand inside the lobby. This curving, freestanding enclosure is covered in panels of translucent plastic so that it glows at night.

Similarly clever applications of materials can be found throughout the interiors. At the back of the lobby, the larger, 500-seat theater is called out with a tilted wall of corrugated metal recalling a stage curtain.

This wall rises 32 feet to a skylight at the top and forms one side of a tall, narrow space overseen by a second-floor balcony framed in resin panels. Hanging at the end of this hall is a glass orb-filled sculpture by Baltimore artist David Hess, a grace note above the side entrance to the building. (Thirteen more works by Mr. Hess are on view in the gallery off the lobby through Jan. 10.)

Inside the main theater, Mr. Greenbaum extended his industrial palette with stainless-steel-mesh screens hung like scrims along the sides of the concrete-block hall. Velour baffles set behind these large panels of chain mail can be raised and lowered like Roman shades to change the acoustics of the room.

Cherry wood applied to the movable proscenium and undulating back wall adds elegance and warmth to the layered materials. The overall effect is as fresh and sophisticated as the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Sidney Harman hall in downtown Washington.

The smaller, 120-seat theater on the north side of the building is less impressive, designed as if to intimidate latecomers. It is entered from a corridor set behind the back and sides of the auditorium so that audience members have to traverse the perimeter to emerge on the sides of the thrust stage and find their seats. At least the walls around the tiered seating are translucent to allow for the penetration of light, as in other parts of the building.

Those attending performances at the arts center will have the benefit of a 350-space garage under construction. The parking structure is reached from King Street between the new building, Health Sciences Center and Cafritz Foundation Art Center, a renovated Giant Food bakery now home to the college’s school of art and design.

Of the these recent buildings, the cultural arts center is the most accomplished, raising the profile of the campus with its energetic, street-savvy architecture.

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