Whitcomb Art Center, Knox College
Project site: Previously developed
Building program type(s): Education - college/university (campus-level)
Much like the precision tools often found in artists’ workshops, the Whitcomb Art Center at Knox College is a precisely tuned instrument that assists its users in making and thinking about creative work. The center is a vibrant home for the college’s art program, offering a bold interpretation of the industrial and agricultural heritage of Galesburg, Illinois. The center is a high-performing workhorse shaped with simple industrial materials, reflecting the college’s self-described scrappy and unconventional community.
The college’s art department embraces a particular set of pedagogical ideals, and making physical and visceral things is at the center of its educational mindset. Working within self-imposed limits, recognizing the preciousness of physical resources, and working with found materials is also highly valued. For decades, the department had been housed in makeshift facilities that were neither adequate nor healthy. Prior to this project, students were spread across several awkwardly repurposed buildings.
The new LEED Gold–certified facility integrates the college’s studio art and art history departments, placing them in a light-filled, cost-effective modern building anchored by a landscaped event and work courtyard. It also serves as a bridge that welcomes the diverse cultural identities found throughout surrounding neighborhoods, connecting the college’s academic campus, Galesburg’s business core, and an adjacent industrial district.
Driven by an extremely tight budget, the center is crafted from pre-engineered metal that allows it to blend into the surrounding fabric. It helps erode the historic implied boundary between the college’s academic realm and the grounded attitude of artists, makers, and industrial fabricators. Skylights draw in northern daylight along the building’s sawtooth roofline, while reclaimed brick and salvaged wood accents mark the center as a hardworking and efficient building that transcends its contexts.
Through the pre-engineered metal system, the building offers optimal structural performance using minimal quantities of steel. The systems and materials inside are exposed and often accentuated, most notably in the tapered columns exposed at the distinctive windows and the use of board-formed concrete for the main stair. The assemblage of humble pieces lends the center a sense of warmth, texture, and history.
“This attractive project overcame a lean budget with creative use of a pre-engineered building and purposeful reuse of materials." - Jury comment
In consolidating the college’s art department, the center plays a significant role in catalyzing a sought-after creative and entrepreneurial culture. Inside, open stairs, intimate seating, and public pinup areas encourage collaboration between students and faculty members as they circulate through the building. The vibrancy of the community contained within and a responsiveness to the natural environment are evident in the center’s dynamic façade, which is composed of sliding panels that serve as sun-shading devices that can be adjusted as the seasons change.
“The design is flexible, and they are already making adjustments to the building. It is organized well and has a good relationship to the outdoors.” - Jury comment
Since its completion, the new center has broadened the department’s exposure to the wider campus community, attracting students who previously might not have enrolled in art classes. In addition, the more regional art community uses the building for special events, educational pursuits, and a seasonal artist-in-residence program.