Arcus Center for Social Justice Leadership
Studio Gang Architects
Kalamazoo, MI, USA
Studio Gang Architects
Thornton Tomasetti (Structural Engineer) dbHMS (MEP/Concept Design) Diekema Hamann Engineering (MEP/FP) Viridis Design Group (Landscape/Civil) Davis Langdon (Cost Estimator) Miller-Davis Company (Pre-Construction Services Contractor)
Steve Hall Iwan Baan
The Arcus Center works to develop emerging leaders and sustain existing leaders in the fields of human rights and social justice. As a learning environment and meeting space, it brings together students, faculty, visiting scholars, social justice leaders, and members of the public for conversation and activities aimed at creating a more just world. To support this important work, the Center is designed to be visually open and activated by daylight. The plan encourages convening in configurations that begin to break down psychological and cultural barriers between people and help facilitate understanding. The presence of a living room, hearth, and kitchen for sharing food at the center of the building creates the potential for frequent informal meetings and casual, chance encounters. Social justice practice is also deeply committed to preserving and protecting our planet, so it was imperative that the design of the Center embody this ethos. The site’s ecology was respected and celebrated: Trees removed from the site were used to build interior millwork pieces such as sunken central hearth seating, built-in benches, and tables for the offices and workroom. Xeriscaping reduced water needs and provided stormwater retention. Together with rigid and spray foam insulation, the wood masonry provides a very high-performance envelope whose wood sequesters more carbon dioxide than was emitted in its production.
Building a center focused on social justice today is to acknowledge the uncomfortable truth that injustice persists in the 21st century. While, historically, the work of social justice has taken place in informal settings hidden from view, the Arcus Center at Kalamazoo College wanted a space that would bring these crucial discussions squarely into public consciousness—a place where current and future social justice leaders could launch ideas about social change in a nurturing environment that would be both visible and proud. Kalamazoo College wanted to ensure that the new building would harmonize with its surroundings, but the site presented the challenge of being adjacent to three disparate conditions: a residential neighborhood; the traditional, colonial campus architecture; and a grove of hardwood trees. The building responds to this context by embracing all three conditions with welcoming, transparent facades that are connected by gently arcing exterior walls. These walls, made of locally sourced, naturally insect-resistant Northern White Cedar set as masonry, establish common ground between the differing neighborhood and campus architectures and the natural landscape, while also setting a new, distinctive tone for sustainability. Renewing this highly sustainable technique presented the distinct challenge of proving its long-term viability. In Michigan, wood masonry structures date back at least 100 years, but contemporary masons have little experience with wood. Through consultation with the few remaining wood masonry experts, hands-on workshops, material testing, and detailed design development, the project became the first institutional application of this technique.
The Arcus Center’s three wings connect the building and its program to the community, the campus, and nature, while simultaneously creating intimate, inclusive spaces. Its flexible, open, daylight-filled spaces offer an inviting environment for seminars, gatherings, and conferences. At the heart of the building, the hearth and kitchen unite people across boundaries through food and fire. Nooks and niche spaces encourage independent and collaborative studying, working, and play. Campus-facing outdoor steps, ramp, and seating enhance accessibility despite a steep incline, simultaneously offering a fun, social outdoor space. Staff, students, and visitors do not have to declare a gender inside the center: the bathrooms are gender-inclusive, a gesture that required the project team to petition the City of Kalamazoo to change its code. Additionally, because the wood for the masonry was grown near the site and required minimal processing and energy expenditure, the cordwood exterior significantly reduced the project’s carbon emissions, compared to traditional construction—a reduction equivalent to removing approximately ten cars from the road for one year. Through its transparency, flexibility, sensitivity, and respect for all life, the building elevates the importance of the crucial conversations and activism taking place within and establishes a unique place for the next generations of social justice leaders to flourish. One year after opening, the Center is being highlighted by the College to attract top talent to their faculty and student bodies.