COCA Expansion

Site: St. Louis, MO, United States

Status: Under Construction

Program: Cultural

Client: Center of Creative Arts

Erich Mendelsohn believed that architecture should balance technique and science with attentiveness to nature.  He was also concerned about man’s relation to public life and democratic communities.  Anticipating a shift in the direction of modern architecture, Mendelsohn did not romanticize the machine, but rather looked to modernism to express materiality as well as the spiritual qualities of light.(1)  He advocated for the architect to react to social and psychological conditions and promote the idea of a ‘sensitive’ architect.  His positions were possibly shaped by the circumstances of his arrival to the US in 1941 during World War II, and his subsequent engagement with Jewish communities motivated by faith and spaces of community engagement.(2)  The transition of Medhelsohn’s B’nai Amoona Synagogue from a religious institution to the Center of Contemporary Arts (COCA) was a fitting progression and saved this important building from demolition in the 1980s.  Many of the ideals and relationships that Mendelsohn explored in his work fit the mission of COCA. For example, places of worship are counter balanced with spaces of education and community gathering.  COCA is an arts institution delivering training and pre-professional performance, yet the underlying foundation is one of enriching lives and uniting various cultural backgrounds through the arts.  Education is at the core of its mission.


In Mendelsohn’s early plans, we find the gathering of educational spaces across the garden from the assembly spaces.  In the garden’s interior is a library and kindergarten within which the children would be placed at the building’s center; framed by light and views to the natural surroundings.  These basic principles guided the interpretation of the proposed renovation by considering the project a protected campus of natural and social spaces organized around the center court consisting of a playground on the upper level and an assembly space on the lower level.  The structure of the courtyard serves as an opportunity for exterior and interior performance space to provide multiple types of performance and educational classrooms.  In addition, COCA is an anchor in the urban life of the neighborhood.  The scale of the proposed addition responds to the neighborhood and also restores the relationship of the curved roof to façade on the eastern edge of the original Mendelsohn building.  Stretching out to the natural limits of this urban and suburban site, the proposed plan integrates program spaces of various sizes, including a theater and black box connection and exposes the learning process of arts education to families that support their child’s pursuit of expressive communication through art.