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Aiming to Engage the Public, DS+R’s New Tianjin Juilliard School Pays Tribute to Its New York Counterpart

The conservatory’s transparent and open design includes space for performance, practice, research, and interactive exhibitions.

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The new Tianjin Juilliard School is a series of volumes abutting a horizontal lobby volume. Courtesy Zhang Chao

Diller Scofidio + Renfro has recently completed a campus in China with communal spaces designed to welcome the public into the creative process and musical performances.

The site lures students and visitors alike by blurring the boundaries between indoor and outdoor space. The firm’s 2009 expansion of the private conservatory in New York City inspired the concept of increasing engagement with the public through openness and transparency. The New York location of the Juilliard School featured a lobby hangout area and spaces revealing school activities to the streets, a theme continued at the new Tianjin outpost.

Around 30 percent of the New York location’s students come from outside the United States. “Juilliard was always an international institution,” president emeritus Joseph Polisi says about the school, which was founded in 1905, “but we weren’t what I would call a global institution.”

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Bridges crisscross the central lobby atrium and hold much of the building’s program. Courtesy Zhang Chao

That has changed, as Tianjin, the Chinese metropolis of 16 million inhabitants, became home to Juilliard’s first overseas campus, located in the Binhai financial district. In fall 2020, The Tianjin Juilliard School (TJS) welcomed its first cohort of 39 graduate students from 11 countries. “Both an educational tool and a performance vessel, the building acts as a finely tuned and highly crafted instrument in and of itself,” says Charles Renfro, the DS+R partner-in-charge of the project.

The 350,000-square-foot structure integrates four pavilions—an allusion to the structure of a symphony, which is made of the same number of movements—with connecting bridges.

The pavilions contain the three central performance spaces set a level deep in the ground: a 690-seat concert hall, a 299-seat recital hall, and a 225-seat black box theater. Three of them house administrative offices in their upper levels. On the fourth level, above the main concert hall, a 2,900-square-foot orchestral rehearsal space opens up to a roof terrace. Spanning two levels, a 6,000-square-foot library offers reading rooms, reference sections, and multimedia stations, its open stacks visible through a glass floor from the reading room below. “By stacking all of these very specialized spaces together, we were able to keep the ground floor completely open,” Renfro says.

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Courtesy Zhang Chao

A continuous stone pavement connects the 24,000-square-foot main lobby with an exterior plaza and bears out the connection of indoor and outdoor. Six entrances spread around the building invite the public to walk into the column-free lobby, which benefits from lightwells that introduce daylight. The lobby is crisscrossed by five glass-clad and soundproof-glazed bridges, which house 12 classrooms, 23 teaching studios, and 86 practice rooms. “For us, the most important aspect of the diagram was the elevation of all teaching, rehearsal, and practice spaces into a series of bridges that span between the pavilions,” Renfro explains.

The chance to observe the students practice in one of these transparent spaces lets visitors linger and connect deeper with the Juilliard way of teaching and celebrating music.

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Courtesy Zhang Chao

“For the first time in any conservatory that we know of, all the practice rooms are put on view,” Renfro points out. DS+R also connected the performance spaces to the surrounding urban context: By lifting the exterior envelope on the outside edges and installing eyebrow windows, the architects allow for views inside out and vice versa. TJS stands out as the first performing arts institution in China to confer a United States–accredited Master of Music degree. Designed for a maximum of 220 to 240 graduates, the school also offers public-facing programming and continuing education courses.

“Every day, students spend countless hours in these rooms,” Renfro says. Ending on a high note, he added: “We wanted to make them humane spaces and beautiful spaces.”

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