Design That Makes a Statement

Increasingly, architects are being requested to provide ‘signature’ buildings for private and public colleges. The stated desire is a special architectural expression of and for the school that speaks to its values and authenticity, evolves from and transcends the current campus context and communicates the future vision of the school.

This request also seems to be driven by two additional factors, namely, the increasing levels of funding from donors, and the on-going competition in the global academic environment for faculty, staff and students. One response to these pressures, in concert with other administrative efforts, can be made through the differentiation provided by design expression that expresses the quality, uniqueness and timelessness of the school.

This response can be shown through several examples that illustrate how the design expression was addressed for each campus. It is interesting to note that these campuses all are approximately ‘30-something’ in age, and the original design vocabulary has not evolved with the increasing size of each successive building.

Focal Point for a University

The Executive Center for Florida International University in Miami is privately funded by the University Foundation. In addition to providing much-needed academic space, the building is an anchor for a new quadrangle linking active student spaces near the Student Center with the more passive spaces surrounding the arts center to the south. The president expressed a desire for a signature piece that would provide a focal point to the new east campus entry and also draw people along the newly developing pedestrian quadrangle.

Because the budget did not allow the entire building to be designed as this focal point, the conference hall component was pulled away from the body of the main building and given an iconic form. The simple curved form is unique to the campus and is multidirectional when seen from a distance. On closer examination this form is highly detailed and very site-specific in creating exterior areas that relate to both the building and the adjacent campus. By raising the conference hall to the second level, the exterior doors on the ground floor open directly onto the quadrangle, revealing the prefunction areas for the conference and seminar rooms inside and the lake outside.

Tower Element as the College Entry Statement

The Health Sciences Center at Lake Sumter Community College in Leesburg, Fla., is also funded in part by a donor. The donor felt strongly about the location and the design statement. The design image of the building is formed with three design elements, namely, the classroom block, the elevator tower and the auditorium.

By locating the building at the southern entry to the campus along a major roadway, the auditorium - especially its distinct doorway - and the elevator tower form an identifiable campus entrance. With the only dictates being the use of the brick and the sloping metal roof already on the campus, the design team evolved combinations of forms and material detailing to give the building and its exterior doors a unique appearance.

Thinking Traditionally

Constructed with a grant from the F. W. Olin Foundation, the F. W. Olin Engineering Building and the Life Science Laboratory at the Florida Institute of Technology in Melbourne are truly special buildings. The school was founded at the inception of the space program to provide ongoing educational opportunities to NASA personnel. With the advent of a new south quadrangle, the president wanted the design expressions of the new buildings to reflect the accomplishments of the school and provide a tangible sense of tradition.

The dominant design element is the squared gable that strongly recalls the traditional image of engineering schools. In concert with the arched forms that create the entry porches for each building, the deep-set windows, and the sloping metal roof, the building addresses the context of the central Florida coastal environment as well as the existing buildings. The glass areas at the entry to each building, especially the doors, provide an open invitation to visitors, students and faculty to join the innovation happening inside. The interior entry atrium spaces are spacious, providing a strong sense of place to each school and allowing for displays, receptions and gatherings.

Your Signature Building

To make the most of an opportunity to create a design-intensive facility, you must establish the ground rules. Once your designer is selected, make certain he or she is designing for you. The design process should be an exploration of the school, in that the building becomes the signature of the school and the donor, not the designer. You can facilitate this process through providing baseline information such as program, budget and schedule. Any design issues, including use of specific materials or roof forms, must be fully understood. Consider refining the boundaries you want the designer to push against, such as the campus context.

Insist the designer provide enough information for the decision-makers fully to understand the building design. This may consist of drawings, sketches, physical models and computer-generated models. If you want several iterations of design concepts or the developed design, or if a donor expects formal presentations, make certain your designer is aware; it can be money well spent.

And finally, fully articulate the vision of the future for the school and how the building might enhance that vision.

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