ENCINITAS — Five years ago when Dustin Atlas was set to graduate from San Dieguito High School Academy, the school foundation was fundraising for its yet-to-be-completed performing arts center. The description of the new center intrigued him.
“It was described as a new theater that could be rearranged for different types of seating and events,” said Atlas, who graduated from SDA in 2010. “In a lot of ways, that idea stuck with me, the idea that a theater could be manipulated by actors and the audience. It was influential with this thesis.”
“This thesis” Atlas referred to was his final project at The Cooper Union’s prestigious Irwin S. Chanin School of Architecture, one of the nation’s top architecture schools, from which Atlas is set to graduate this month with his Bachelor’s of Architecture, a five-year program at Cooper.
For Atlas’ thesis, he took a turn reinventing the concept of a performing arts center, taking inspiration from New York’s fire escapes to create a performing arts center where the seating is suspended from surrounding buildings, much like the ubiquitous metal staircases that populate New York City.
He designed his theater to sit atop the grounds of New York’s old Miners Bowery Theater, which was torn down in 1922 after a huge fire. News reports at the time described how hundreds of people gathered on nearby fire escapes to watch the fire, essentially inverting the theater experience.
“The fire escape literally became the stage for the drama,” Atlas said. “I wanted to commemorate that moment in time, as well as pay homage to fire escapes,” which he said were necessary at the time because theaters were lit by candle, creating a major fire hazard.
“I’ve always been fascinated by fire escapes in the city, because in California we don’t have those,” Atlas said. “You see them everywhere here, and they memorialize a specific time in the history of New York when they were needed and all added to the facade. In contemporary times some ignore them and don’t consider them to be real architecture, but they are prevalent in the way we see the city.”
Atlas said despite his academic performance (he aced his thesis and classes) and love of architecture, he’s likely not going to pursue architecture as a career. He will spend the next year teaching English in Israel before deciding on a career path.
“I am very passionate about set design and the theater’s relationship to architecture, and I also love teaching,” Atlas said. “I think there is a way to combine those passions, but I am not entirely sure that architecture with a capital “A” is the right pathway.”
Atlas continues to keep in touch with friends and family in Encinitas. When told about the Intrepid Theatre Company’s proposal to build a performing arts center in the Encinitas Ranch Town Center, he offered his thoughts.
“I think it is so important for the theater to be engaged with the community and the city, and to have architecture that is open or welcoming that it invites people who maybe aren’t inclined to going to the theater,” Atlas said.
“What I have discovered is that a city is a theater in itself, and that (the project) can remind us that we are all sort of connected to each other and the art, and through that we can connect our community, which is a powerful message that can be conveyed architecturally.”