November 20, 2003
UW Allen Center fosters a culture of research
By GEORGE SHAW
The design of a research and teaching facility for the 21st century is not just about spatial requirements, functional considerations and important site issues. At the University of Washington, the ultimate measure of success is how well the building supports and cultivates the culture of investigation and research that will inevitably lead to scientific achievement and breakthrough discoveries.
Opened last September, the Paul G. Allen Center for Computer Science & Engineering (CSE), designed by LMN Architects of Seattle, is just such a building, and one that fully captures both the spirit and substance of the emerging “culture of research.”
Hank Levy, CSE associate chair and the building committee chair, suggests that the committee's objective was simply as stated in the facility dedication brochure: “Although a high-tech building, the Allen Center was from its inception conceived as a ‘people place' for a unit that knows its central mission is to produce superbly educated graduates. Every element of the building was designed to stimulate interaction among students, faculty, staff and visitors. Interaction among creative people is the catalyst for great ideas.”
But beyond that, in today's environment, a project that has exceeded all objective and subjective goals, and done so within the established budget, is even a more remarkable achievement. The Allen Center provides 168,000 square feet of new facilities plus an additional 22,000 square feet of renovated area in an adjacent building, all for a total construction cost of $44 million and a total project cost of $72 million.
Setting aside the amounts expended on the remodeled area, the new construction of high-tech laboratory and teaching facilities was achieved for a construction cost of $245 per square foot.
The culture of research
In providing for, and accommodating a culture of research which is rooted in the social fabric of the CSE Department and the larger university community, three principal convictions provided underpinning for the facility's design investigation and development.
CSE Bill & Melinda Gates Chair Edward Lazowska recalls that during the programming stage of the project, 10 desiderata were shared with LMN to inform the design investigation. Only two or three of them were technical in nature; the rest were about people, places, collaboration and the subjective quality of the academic environment.
In distilling this information, first and foremost it was recognized that the center was to be a building for people, not machines. Secondly, it was established that hands-on team learning is at the core of the CSE culture. And finally, consensus was reached that the new facility must engage and enrich the overall academic campus experience.
A building for people, not machines
Frequently, the program requirements to accommodate the various fixtures and equipment specific to an academic department overlook the underlying principle that teaching by faculty and learning by students is inherently a personal interaction. It follows that a facility which promotes this interaction among its occupants will provide a superior learning environment.
The CSE faculty and research groups were already organized horizontally, promoting a collegiality not possible in a vertical structure, and they preferred an office-laboratory environment that was open to cross discipline interactions. Within this structure they felt strongly about creating a physical environment that had the feeling and energy similar to that of a start-up technology originating in someone's residential garage.
LMN rigorously explored design options which captured this academic “personality” in various ways, employing in particular a concept of faculty office-to-lab relationship that created interactive “districts” for teacher and student. Controlled natural light floods a six-story atrium space, which acts as a central unifying element for the entire facility and the CSE department. Warm colors and materials further accent the interior spaces, which in turn help create a collegial environment for both students and faculty.
All of these design gestures work toward providing individual and collective spaces that are truly designed for the people who occupy them.
Hands-on team learning
Creating spaces for people facilitated the team learning objectives of CSE. Interaction zones were developed both in laboratory and office settings, as well as in capturing the opportunities presented by chance encounters in corridors and study lounges. Complete flexibility and accessibility of lab systems infrastructure were incorporated in the building and the merging of low-tech (white boards and markers) with high-tech (digital projection and plasma display) communication devices both worked to advance the shared sense of community and collaborative investigation.
Anecdotally, it is recognized by CSE that this team environment's origins formed while Paul Allen and Bill Gates were still in high school but informally spent increasing amounts of time at the university, experimenting with unoccupied computers and interacting with students and faculty until they had learned enough to help launch the PC revolution. It is this informal collaborative team-learning environment that flourishes to this day.
Engaging the campus experience
No building or program exists in isolation, and the same internal facility environment fostered by CSE has its parallels in how the facility relates to the larger university community. The atrium space relates to both CSE and the adjacent Electrical Engineering Department, as well as the campus at large, and functions as a community mixing chamber within which ideas and social activities are shared.
The facility's architecture is sympathetic to the surrounding historical campus while responding to the CSE educational program by being a contemporary expression in its technical configuration and detailing. The building itself is an integrated element of the immediate area and its campus precinct, and possesses a strong relationship to the pedestrian axes along Sylvan Grove, Stevens Way and the Rainier Vista beyond.
There can be any number of ways to envision a building which responds to a specific program of objectives. In the case of the Paul G. Allen Center for Computer Science & Engineering, the project has attained success in architecturally capturing the spirit of team-learning centered on the personal interactive relationships between faculty, students and their physical environment.
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