Arcus Center For Social Justice Leadership

by | 24. Mar 2016

Educational | Project
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The Arcus Center for Social Justice Leadership. Steve Hall © Hedrich Blessing

By Nina Tory-Henderson

The Arcus Center’s mission is to develop emerging leaders and sustain existing leaders in the field of social justice. Their center at Kalamazoo College is primarily a site for education and conversation, bringing together leaders, scholars, students and the public to initiate positive social change. The architecture of the new center, designed by Chicago and New York based firm Studio Gang, nourishes and invigorates this work of the Arcus Center. Studio Gang questioned how space could encourage discussion, public participation and bring social justice issues into visibility.

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A low lying and modest building to house the activities of social justice work. Steve Hall © Hedrich Blessing

At a modest 930 square metres, the building provides an intimate setting for the activities of the Arcus Center. The axial plan is made up of three wings housing open workrooms, seminar space as well as smaller more intimate study areas, creating varied spaces for different kinds of  discussion and gathering.

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Space provided for intimate discussions. © Iwan Baan

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Space provided for large community gathering. © Iwan Baan

These three wings meet at an informal social space dubbed ‘the hearth’, a sunken pit skirted by a continuous bench surrounding a central fire and neighboured by a small kitchen. Here Studio Gang have employed traditional, even ancient motifs of social gathering recurrent across generations and cultures, evoking the familiar image of coming together over a cooked meal or around a burning fire. It is these spaces of casualness and intimacy that encourage participatory democracy.

We thought that introducing the domestic elements of the kitchen, fireplace, and hearth into the centre of the space would help people feel comfortable so they could more easily have conversations about difficult issues.”
/Jeanne Gang, Studio Founder
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The Hearth. Steve Hall © Hedrich Blessing

Sited between the neighbourhood, the campus and the forest the building sensitively embraces it’s diverse context. Each wing stretches out to one of these environments, framing them through large glazed openings at their termination. The transparency of the building brings the community, landscape and campus within the interior and also renders the work of the Arcus Centre visible to the surrounding community.

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Capturing the context. Steve Hall © Hedrich Blessing

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Large glazed openings bring the work of the Arcus Center into the public eye. Steve Hall © Hedrich Blessing

Throughout the design process, Studio Gang continuously considered how they could use their agency as architects to address issues of social justice themselves. Design decisions were made to ensure social inclusion and equality, sustainable use of materials and sensitive response to the physical, social and historical context.

There are no gendered toilets in the center, acknowledging that gender identity often doesn’t fit within the male-female binary prescribed by almost all bathroom  spaces, eliminating individuals from having to make unwanted gender declarations in order to simply use a toilet. The building also has high levels of accessibility when mostly only the bare minimum to meet building codes is provided. The external cladding of the building revived a forgotten vernacular construction technique of timber masonry, with the logs sourced locally from northern Michigan. The facade is also highly sustainable as the unprocessed wood sequesters carbon.

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The crafted cordwood facade. Steve Hall © Hedrich Blessing

Beyond the design, the Arcus Center and Studio Gang fostered a collaborative process from the initial design stages through to construction, consulting with the local community and students. Through the tendering process it was ensured that sub-contractors engaged were diverse,  including individuals across cultures, genders and sexuality.

It’s a less visible part of the building at the end of the day but there really was attention to detail of who is building, how the community is involved and how the students can have a say on what the final building will be.”
/Jeanne Gang, Studio Founder

The Arcus Center for Social Justice Leadership embodies the organisations social purpose in every way, from the spaces it creates, to how and who built it, to what it is built from.

I think this building brings a real nobility to social justice work… it’s a very proud and noble space.”
/Jon Stryker, Founder and President, Arcus Foundation
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The Arcus Center from above. © Iwan Baan

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Floor Plan. © Studio Gang Architects

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Section. © Studio Gang Architects


CITYKalamazoo, Michigan
SIZE930 m2