Marvel and Mecanoo give a storied dance theater in the Berkshires a second life.
By Jane Margolies
When a fire destroyed the Doris Duke Theatre on the campus of Jacob’s Pillow in 2020, it was an enormous blow to the renowned dance venue in Becket, Massachusetts, and, more broadly, the international dance community. The Duke, as it was commonly known, had been a beloved part of the rustic 220-acre campus in the Berkshires, in a barnlike building where experimental works were incubated and performed and legendary artists got their start.
The only way to rise above this “crushing tragedy,” says Pamela Tatge, the Pillow’s executive and artistic director, was to view it as an opportunity to improve upon the Duke, which was built in 1989 and lacked the technological capabilities of newer theaters. A replacement could be designed to accommodate all kinds of performances and be outfitted with the latest technology. But the new theater would have to fit into its surroundings—Jacob’s Pillow is a National Historic Landmark—and, Pillow leadership felt, it would also have to pay respect to the Mohican peoples who originally occupied the land, as well as other tribes that made their home in the region.
The plan that has emerged—produced by a team that includes the Dutch architecture firm Mecanoo as the design architect for the building, New York-based Marvel as the architect of record as well as the landscape architect for the site, and the Choctaw-Cherokee artist Jeffrey Gibson—is committed to yielding a landscape as intentional as the new, improved Duke.
The reimagined playhouse will be more than twice the size of the old one, but it has been designed to blend in with the Pillow’s vernacular architecture and woodland setting. In front of the building, two landscape features will nod to Indigenous culture. One is a firepit (a sacred element, with firepits often serving as gathering places), the other a medicinal garden (which often marks the entrance to a house). On top of the theater, a green roof will collect rainwater to be used for flushing toilets and irrigation. Sedum and other plants on the roof will help not only with sustainability but also with acoustics, says Yadiel Rivera-Díaz, ASLA, a Marvel partner who leads its landscape architecture practice, noting how the plants will absorb exterior noise and thus minimize distractions for dancers.
At the building’s rear, a grassy area where dancers and staff liked to gather will be formalized as an “artist quadrangle.” The ground will be regraded so that dancers can perform on the veranda on this side of the building with the audience seated on the lawn. Rock scrambles on the quad’s edges, in keeping with the natural character of the campus, “will help frame views toward the veranda,” Rivera-Díaz says.
Other rock scrambles will flank benches along winding paths, one of which will curve around two trees that survived the fire and have become poignant reminders of the event. A red oak planted years ago, in honor of the Pillow director when the original Duke was built, was charred on one side, and its roots were damaged first by firefighters putting out the blaze and, later, by contractors carting away building debris. An older oak next to it escaped the flames but also suffered root damage.
So far, $28 million has been raised toward the $35 million needed to implement the plan and create an endowment to support the new theater. If fundraising targets are met, the new theater is expected to be completed in 2025. But at least one thing is happening already: The Pillow has hired Greg Beck, a master arborist from Bartlett Tree Experts, to treat the fire-damaged oaks, which have become symbols of survival and growth.
CORRECTION: The original version of this article omitted Mecanoo from the credits for the first two images. The error has been corrected here.