Design of COCA Renovation and Expansion Enormously Collaborative, Wonderfully Challenging

By Jeff Ryan, AIA

On June 8, the renovation phase of COCA’s Create Our Future project officially opened to the public, and the expansion phase was symbolically initiated with a spectacular ceremonial groundbreaking event. Through the event’s personal testimonies, the remarks by key project supporters, and the extraordinary student performances, the COCA community’s energy, passion, commitment, and brilliant creativity were on full display. I found myself humbled and poignantly reminded of the great honor and privilege it has been to participate in the design of the renovation/expansion project.

Designing this project has been a wonderfully challenging assignment, and our whole design team has been extra-motivated by the desire to contribute to space that enables COCA’s extraordinary mission. The design process has been a great exercise in balancing the myriad of spatial and technical needs of performance spaces, the imperative to reinforce the strong sense of social connectedness and community at COCA, and the historic and logistical constraints of renovating and adding to the original building.

The newly-renovated Peacock Studio
The newly-renovated Emerson Studio

The original B’nai Amoona Synagogue, designed by renowned German architect Eric Mendelsohn, is a truly exceptional and courageous piece of historic modern architecture and a very important part of St. Louis’ rich cultural fabric. Being respectful of the iconic stature of the original building has been fundamental to our design approach, and we have developed the renovation and the expansion in ways that allow the original building to remain legible as new construction is designed to be sympathetic but clearly distinct from the original. After completion, when visitors walk through the building, they will be able to simultaneously perceive the original building, the new renovation, the expansion, and the whole COCA community all at once.

The newly-renovated Staenberg Performance Lab at COCA
The newly-renovated Staenberg Performance Lab at COCA

Designing this project was an enormously collaborative effort. The design team was composed of two architectural firms, a construction manager, a client representative, an ensemble of mechanical, electrical, plumbing, civil and structural engineers, and specialty consultants for acoustics, theater, and audio-visual technology.

The newly-renovated Gold Studio
COCA Campers making use of the the newly-renovated Gold Studio
The newly-renovated Dierbergs Kitchen

The team had almost daily interaction with a core COCA steering committee, regular engagement with staff and key users, and oversight by the board of directors. There were thousands of hours of communication during this project and tens of thousands of decisions that had to be made. It has been a pleasure to be part of the team that helped realize a project that will perpetuate and expand the great educational, artistic and social work of COCA.

 Jeff Ryan is Managing Principal for Design at Christner Architects. Christner collaborated with Axi:Ome on the architectural design of COCA’s Create Our Future renovation and expansion project.

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