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The Arcus Center for Social Justice in Kalamazoo, Michigan by Studio Gang

Arcus centre kalamazoo Studio Gang

Inclusion, openness and dialogue resonate throughout Jeanne Gang’s Arcus Center for Social Justice Leadership

Few would argue that Kalamazoo, Michigan, is a bastion of social justice, even if the people are proof of the friendliness that seems to pervade the state and much of the Midwest. Fewer would be likely to peg the town as the home of inspiring contemporary architecture, with its red-brick Georgian-style homes and the occasional late-18th-century Queen Annes exemplifying the finest architecture of its neighbourhoods. The sleepy town in western Michigan is perhaps best known for a popular micro-brewery and a 1942 big-band hit song of the same name by Glenn Miller. In fact, it’s hard not to hum the tune as you drive down the town’s quiet tree-lined streets: ‘I’ve got a gal in Kalamazoo-zoo-zoo!’

Yet, on one of those very same streets,  on the quaint campus of Kalamazoo College,  sits a proud form that is striving to define a building typology dedicated to social justice and the production of tomorrow’s activist leadership. Studio Gang’s Arcus Center for Social Justice Leadership is at once modest, at only 930m², and in the same breath a bold statement about how architecture can influence the discourse around one of the United States’ most pressing issues. Opened at the beginning of the 2014-2015 school year, the centre gives space to a wide variety of functions, events and programmes, both for the college and the greater community. Its mission is no less than to bring the activities of social justice planning and leadership –which historically took place in the basements of churches and around the kitchen tables of housing projects and tenements – and give them a public, open forum.

‘The closest thing to this typology we found were meeting houses, Shaker meeting houses – or in different cultures there were places where elders could meet’

‘The closest thing to this typology we found were meeting houses, Shaker meeting houses – or in different cultures there were places where elders could meet,’ explained Jeanne Gang, highlighting her office’s typical approach of research leading into projects.  ‘That was an exciting part of the project, the discovery of what the space could be like as there wasn’t a place just like it anywhere.’  The resulting project would end up being many steps removed from that research, while still tapping into some of its deeper lessons.

Arcus centre kalamazoo Studio Gang02

Arcus centre kalamazoo Studio Gang02

On initial approach, the shape of the building is slightly ambiguous. Low, softly curving facades hint that the project might  be more complex than its first impression.  A short walk around the small building reveals three nearly equal opaque sides, terminating in three large glass ends, truncating a would-be triangular floor plan. One quickly notices the very deliberate orientation of the project, with the three  glass ends addressing distinctly different conditions. This is exaggerated by the rolling topology of the site and the area.

The glass end to the north-east cantilevers, as the site falls away, looking further down the hill to the centre of campus. The southern end faces squarely into a dense grove of trees, the effect of which is felt most notably on the interior. The north-west end sits on the same level over a grassy lawn, addressing the community immediately off campus, directly across the street. This face, in particular, plays a game of show and tell fitting of a Tati film, yet the result is far from a satirical critique of those viewing in, or those appearing through the highly transparent glass. Instead, the bright, open aperture proudly states, ‘Look at what we are doing, we no longer must hide our intentions in dark back rooms!’ followed by the cry: ‘Join us!’

Arcus centre kalamazoo Studio Gang plan

Arcus centre kalamazoo Studio Gang plan

Arcus Center floor plan - click to expand

The effects of the opaque portions of the facade are felt more immediately near the building, starting with the material choice.  ‘We were taking this idea of social justice and community to the extreme,’ Gang explains. ‘We were looking for a tectonic expression that would be about making and community participation.’

The solution involved recovering a nearly forgotten building technique once used by the area’s settlers. By doing so Studio Gang was able to leverage the region’s vernacular without simply just mimicking a formal or symbolic motif. Described as cordwood masonry, white cedar logs of varying size are stacked by hand with mortar, producing a thick tactile facade. Although the building’s structure is steel, the cordwood plays more  of a role than that of a simple rainscreen veneer. Thanks to its thickness and mass,  the technique provides a certain level of insulation against the long Midwest winters. More notably, because the only treatment  of the wood is the initial harvesting and a year-long natural drying time, it has an inherently low-carbon impact. The carbon the trees had initially interned as they grew is not released as long as the wood stays in log form.

‘As the visitor enters the central space, the building opens up and there is the possibility once again to engage with the community’

Although mostly absent of any specific historical reference, the facade does set up what might be considered a contemporary vernacular. Along with the sustainable argument for the technique, the unique size, shape and pattern of each individual log has been taken up as a symbol of the diverse community the building, and the centre it houses, are intended to serve. The public was even invited at one point to participate in laying the logs – another symbolic gesture tying the building to the community. Now finished for almost two winters, the logs have begun to take on a patina, completing the visual effect planned for by Studio Gang.

The cordwood masonry construction of the facade, even if not typical, also allowed for the soft curve of each of the major faces of the building. On the north face, along the main road leading to campus, the skin is split and a bulging eyelet is produced, making one of the few openings through the solid mass. In other points throughout the building, round tubular windows are used in place of logs when light  is needed for the few enclosed spaces on  the interior. The south-eastern face of the building bows away from the adjacent forest, producing a space of terraced seating and stairs, isolated from the neighbourhood and campus alike. The south-west face of the building holds the main entrance. Its placement in the belly of the curving opaque facade is notable as an other condition that does not occur in the rest of the building. Because of this, passing through the door amplifies the experience of the building’s surface condition and tempers the visitor’s understanding of how thickness eventually plays out on the interior.

Arcus centre kalamazoo Studio Gang03

Arcus centre kalamazoo Studio Gang03

Arcus centre kalamazoo Studio Gang04

Arcus centre kalamazoo Studio Gang04

Upon entering the building, one senses a hint of its design detailing, as the doors themselves are made of slightly curved glass. After passing through the facade – which in places reaches 5.5m – and a utilitarian vestibule, which includes hidden storage, seating for the changing out of snowy boots and coat closets, the true thickness of the project begins to reveal itself. Yet as soon as the visitor enters the central space, the building opens up and there is the possibility once again to engage with the community, campus and forest beyond the glass ends  in all directions.

A conversation pit and hearth unapologetically occupy the centre of  the floor. This move sets up a complex relationship that allows for intimate conversations to comfortably take place in  the middle of a space that feels alive and open. The effect can only be described as  akin to sitting on the edge of a fountain in  a vast piazza. A full kitchen also calls back  to ideas of intimate kitchen conversations, while supporting more social programming  in the space.

More curved glass lets light through extensive clerestories, filling the heart of the building with light during the day. More light pours in through the three glassed end wings of the building onto the main gathering spaces. In the largest gathering space, in  the southern wing, a terraced floor and ramps mimic the conditions in the landscaping of  the building. The forest beyond the wing’s glass end is framed and transformed into  a lush seasonally changing backdrop for impassioned speakers. All of these spaces are open and free for students, faculty and the general public to reserve for events. Gang envisions the possibilities of the space: ‘If the public needed to protest – say their water had lead in it – there is space dedicated in the building for organised protests.’

Arcus centre kalamazoo Studio Gang05

Arcus centre kalamazoo Studio Gang05

Not all of the project is designed for large gatherings however. Inscribed into super-thick walls, offices, informal seating and small group conference rooms provide space for the other conversations that take place in the building, which can often be sensitive. This sensitivity also carries through to the more utilitarian spaces. Thinking about every decision in terms of social justice, Gang discusses the gender-neutral lavatories, which are also embedded in the thickness of the walls. ‘It was very important not to have to identify as one gender, just to use a restroom,’ she says. As a symbol of the often-undiscussed biases of the built environment, this feature had to be negotiated by Studio Gang with the city, as building code demands sexed lavatories in public buildings.

‘The true success of the Arcus Center will only be measurable when the social changes it proposes are put into effect’

The building is not without fault though. It seems that, shortly after construction, when it initially settled, small cracks formed in some of the mortar and in at least one spot in the interior floor. As a result of the novel construction method, local contractors also had to be specially trained for the job in a skill for which they may not find a regular use. This may or may not explain the settling issues – neither the engineers nor the contractors had extensive experience with the building method. It could be argued, however, that this is the price of material and construction experimentation, although the true success of the Arcus Center will only be measurable when the social changes it proposes are put into effect.

Arcus centre kalamazoo Studio Gang section

Arcus centre kalamazoo Studio Gang section

Arcus Center section AA

For now, architecturally, the project can be judged in the context of Gang’s practice, as well as in relation to the greater field. ‘In terms of our body of work, it brings some of our sensibilities together – the issue of how things coalesce, how things are made, the life quality inside and the flow of the space.’ As such, Arcus achieves what other Studio Gang projects anticipated. It builds  on the cleverness of the spatial planning of the 2010 Columbia College Chicago Media Production Center, which deftly shifts to the visual media experimentation of its students. At the same time, it tempts iconography with novel material manipulation, as with the 2008 Lavezzorio Community Center on the South Side of Chicago. Looking forward, Arcus foregrounds the office’s research into social and civil issues surrounding police stations, explored in their contribution to the Chicago Architecture Biennial, Polis Station.

Within the wider architectural discourse, projects like Arcus speak the loudest about the polemics of the office. While the practice’s high-rises garner global attention, these smaller projects have the potential to make much larger lasting impacts on the field. In Arcus, Studio Gang was tasked with addressing an archetype that has no precedent and, in so doing, it has begun to explore the implications of spaces that are truly of the 21st century.

Arcus Center for Social Justice

Architect: Studio Gang Architects

General contractor: Miller-Davis Company 

Structural engineer: Thornton Tomasetti

Civil engineer: Viridis Design Group

M&E engineer: Diekema Hamann

Photographs: Nic Lehoux

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