Design Award Winners (2023)

Thaden School Performance Building

Project Overview

A private school with a public purpose,” Thaden School is a new independent middle and high school in Bentonville, Arkansas. The school’s unique curriculum combines academic excellence with learning by doing and features three signature programs: Wheels (where the fields of physics and mechanics come alive through the construction and use of bicycles and other wheeled machines), Meals (where biology, chemistry, and community come alive through the growing and preparation of food), and Reels (where narrative and visual communication come alive through the production of film and video).

Through its partnerships with nearby community organizations in the visual and culinary arts, bicycling, and community service, the school will provide students with opportunities to learn both on and off campus. The school’s “whole student/whole body” pedagogy will feature learning opportunities both indoors and outdoors.

The campus plan unifies two separate plots by creating a “shared street” on which automobiles, pedestrians, and cyclists can coexist. On either side, campus buildings use a strategy familiar in Arkansas, with long narrow buildings oriented to control the exposure to the intense southern sun and to allow natural ventilation at the eave. These long forms are strategically bent to prevent long internal corridors and to frame gathering spaces outside. The campus itself is a teaching tool as a productive landscape for agriculture and a restorative landscape that addresses flooding and restores native ecosystems.

A generous loggia and expressive canopy create a strong and welcoming street edge. They extend well beyond the main body of the building and lead to a skylit entryway. Other than the glazing on each side revealed when the multicolored metal shell lifts, only one large window in the performance hall punctuates the exterior shell. Looking out to the campus and the original Thaden House, this monumental window is even larger on the interior, which brings soft, indirect light into an otherwise sealed performance hall. With direct connections from the stage to the back of house, the performance hall is a versatile and professional venue for creative performance. The versatile and efficient allocation of space advances the school’s mission and identity as a stage for improvisation, experimentation, and imagination.