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Wheeler Kearns Architects turn a Chicago warehouse into a youth arts campus

For nearly 30 years educational group Marwen has been providing free art lessons to low-income youths in Chicago.

Starting life in a one-room office, the non-profit organisation made a big move in 2000 into an ex-industrial site in the Near North Side neighbourhood. Last year it grew from two to four floors, adding a gallery and two studio spaces to its warehouse base.

Wheeler Kearns Architects masterminded the building’s metamorphosis, picking up a SEED Award for exemplary design with social impact last month.

‘Our first renovation for Marwen [in 2000] put in place an aesthetic program – to let the quiet historical architecture prevail – and the new work maintains that,’ says practice principal, Dan Wheeler.

Photography: Steve Hall / Hedrich Blessing Photographers

Wheeler Kearns designed a prominent loggia with clean Miesian lines tied to the old structure through exposed brick and concrete spillover. As well as providing gallery and gathering spaces, the loggia improves the relationship between the new entry and the building’s social centre.

Inside, poured concrete floors, white and grey partitions, workstations, and high-gloss surfaces mingle with brick masonry and Douglas fir beams. A floating glass and steel staircase bores between the first and second levels.

Art is exhibited on the main floor, and the gallery’s monochrome palette ensures colour only comes from the art and inhabitants. The gutted and refinished basement houses ceramic studios, the second floor holds ‘wet arts’, and the third, high-tech workshops. The rooftop, meanwhile, is a solar farm that offsets the electric bill.

Photography: Steve Hall / Hedrich Blessing Photographers
Photography: Steve Hall / Hedrich Blessing Photographers

The impetus for Marwen’s physical expansion, says executive director Antonia Contro, is to ‘turn the centre outward as a campus for youth arts and grow student numbers 30% by 2018′. Marwen has 2,300 enrolments annually across 100+ studio classes.

Renovation work was done on a tight budget, bolstered by donated fixtures and furnishings. It’s a theme at Marwen. Art materials – a pricey proposition for artists of all stripes – are provided free to students. Architecture firm Gensler teamed up on the interiors, presenting a ‘catalogue of wants’ to vendors to see what might be procured on the cheap.

Marwen’s kids, 41% percent of whom don’t take art in school, revel in access to such a quality venue. ‘Working in a space like this shapes their art consciousness,’ says Contro.



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