Published November 15, 2021
Pull back the curtain to “Hidden Identities,” the recently unveiled renovation of Buffalo’s Torn Space Theater, and a surprise is in store: a state-of-the-art black box theater opens to a sprawling green lawn, flooded with light through a wall of floor-to-ceiling glass doors.
The dramatic transformation of a 126-year-old building on Buffalo’s East Side into a flexible indoor-outdoor performance and event space is the work of UB architecture professor Christopher Romano. It’s also the latest progression in the contemporary performance theater’s plan to create a cultural campus and site of engagement on the city’s East Side.
The three-story building at 618 Fillmore Ave. dates back to 1895, when the Adam Mickiewicz Library and Dramatic Circle (AML) was founded as a cultural space for the city’s booming Polish immigrant community. AML still occupies the space, maintaining its library as well as a historic Polonia tavern. Torn Space Theater, an experimental theater company that combines visual, performing and media arts, has operated out of AML’s original theater in the back of the building since 2000.
Revealed at a ribbon-cutting ceremony earlier this year, the $1.2 million renovation was supported by New York State’s East Side Corridor Economic Development Fund, part of the Buffalo Billion Phase II revitalization strategy for the city’s East Side. More than two dozen foundations, individuals and businesses provided additional support.
Romano and his design practice, Studio NORTH Architecture, have been involved from the start, working with Torn Space to shape the master plan and design the first phase of the theater’s expansion in 2017. That project converted a former gas mart next to the main theater building into “Light/Station,” a production facility featuring a signature perforated metal façade that sends slivers of light into the surrounding neighborhood.
The theater is strategically located next to East Side landmarks such as the Broadway Market, St. Stanislaus Church and Central Terminal, as well as an emerging cluster of urban farms, the renovation of the former Schreiber Brewery and a Buddhist cultural center. The site is on a major north/south transit corridor connecting Larkinville with the Broadway/Fillmore commercial district.
“Chris and his team at UB and Studio NORTH have been an essential partner in Torn Space’s emergence as a place-based cultural anchor that elevates quality design. We are committed to the long-term viability of the historic Broadway/Fillmore neighborhood and have begun activating our campus as a site of engagement for the community. This process began in 2015 with Studio NORTH’s dynamic transformation of our design studio and continued into 2021 with the launch of Hidden Identifies,” says Dan Shanahan, artistic director of Torn Space Theater, which he founded in 2002 with Melissa Meola.
Romano says Hidden Identities emerged in response to a complex design challenge presented by Torn Space: convert an outdated theater in an historic building into an industry-standard black box theater that can open onto the surrounding landscape.
“These are two important but different functions: One is necessarily dark and ‘walled in,’ while the other demands ample lighting and an open feel. The challenge was to appropriately fit these two ‘identities’ into a single space,” says Romano, who served as architect-of-record for the project through Studio NORTH Architecture.
The design team’s approach was surgical — a combination of discrete design moves and technical precision that bundled the black box’s high-end mechanicals and technology into thick, heavy walls, and excavated and exposed other spaces to create openings and flexibility. The building’s double-height row of folding glass doorways transitions easily from blank wall to open façade by way of a heavy velvet curtain.
“The result is a space that can transition easily from austere, simple and flat, to organic, bright and dynamic, extending the performance space onto the surrounding grounds and creating openings for the community to engage with the space,” adds Romano.
Every wall has been thickened on all four sides to create space for sophisticated lighting and acoustical equipment, as well as auxiliary spaces such as the mechanical room, technical booth and washrooms. A “silence chamber” — the transitional space from the historic tavern in the center of the building to the theater in the rear — features walls that are 9-feet thick.
Romano’s combination of conceal-and-reveal design solutions also blended old with new. An original brick wall has been excavated and exposed, while the transition from the original wood flooring to an expanded section in the rear is demarcated to emphasize the transition from old to new. The building’s original proscenium stage was removed to create a “cave” or “pit” to allow for alternative arrangements between audience and performer. A 20-ton dolomite boulder hangs over the opening, suggesting a temporal and physical connection to the 4-million-year-old geologic history below ground.
Romano’s third major design move was to dissolve the boundary between interior and exterior with a wall of floor-to-ceiling casement glass doors. In addition to allowing performances and events to spill outside, the treatment integrates the space with the surrounding landscape with views of the historic St. Stanislaus Church.
The space’s “hidden” elements maximize performance without competing with the visual experience. The blankness of the black box ultimately fades into the background, allowing for the richness of the historical elements, the warmth of brick wall and wooden floor, and the surrounding landscape to take center stage.
“In ‘Hidden Identities,’ theater and architecture work together as acts of space-making and cultural creation,” Romano says. “It’s an exciting progression in Torn Space’s master plan that we hope creates a new cultural landmark and community space for Buffalo.”
The final phase of the plan will transform a lawn linking the main theater building and Light/Station into a community greenspace to host outdoor performances and events. Torn Space began using its new space in July, inviting guests onto the surrounding lawn for performances that project light, sound and video onto the Light/Station façade.
Peeling back the layers to reveal building-to-building, building-to-landscape, and building-to-city urban relationships.
The perspective from the North-South section reveals the indoor-outdoor and building-to-ground relationships within the theater.
The interior perspective reveals the potential configuration of audience-to-performer and performer-to-space relationships.
A cutaway view examining the structural, mechanical, electrical and acoustic systems hidden within the thickened walls of the black box theater.
A cutaway view examining the technical and circulation considerations between Torn Space Theater and the Polish Community Center masonry fire wall.
Romano says his collaboration with Torn Space demonstrates the unique role research-based practices like Studio NORTH can play in the community. For instance, as architect-of-record for Hidden Identities, Romano hired students and recent UB architecture graduates to provide design support. UB architecture faculty members Randy Fernando and Mike Hoover, both graduates of UB’s architecture program, served as design assistants throughout the project. Also, the “Light/Station” façade is an extension of Romano’s research on the structural possibilities of thin-gauge metals, which he is pursuing with Buffalo-based architectural manufacturer Rigidized Metals. That project has won multiple local and national design awards.
Dean Robert Shibley says the dynamic puts faculty-led practices on the boundary of research and application. “Chris’ work with Torn Space demonstrates what’s possible when we situate our research in the communities we serve. It creates openings for entrepreneurial design and development, collaborative client-owner relationships, and the translation of innovative research into built forms that enrich and enliven our community.”
The School of Architecture and Planning has also been intensively involved in the state’s economic development strategy for the East Side, all of which laid the foundation for the Torn Space project. The UB Regional Institute directs East Side Avenues, a public engagement and capacity-building initiative to support community-driven investment from the East Side Corridor Economic Development Fund.