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Why Institutions Of Higher Learning Are Embracing Placemaking Design

The Arthur F. and Patricia Ryan Center for Business Studies at Providence College in Providence, R.I.

Enter the gate at Huxley Avenue, and you will find yourself standing at the new heart of Providence College. 

The centerpiece of this campus area, the Arthur F. and Patricia Ryan Center for Business Studies, is the first new building to unite the east and west campuses and has quickly become a hub of student activity for the college. Business school students, faculty and other members of the college community flock daily to the atrium to study and collaborate.

The curved brick, precast and glass building, with its open atrium and state-of-the-art classrooms, highlights Providence College’s mission to foster a community of leaders and innovative thinkers. At the same time, the contemporary gothic arch and color-changing flame at the front entrance of the center not only evoke the college’s logo, but also its architectural history. The contemporary building, with its curved geometry and central tower, recalls the design of Harkins Hall, the first iconic neogothic building at Providence College.

“We wanted a building that would signal our embrace of the future of business and business education while building on the best of the past,” Providence College Dean Sylvia Maxfield said.

The new student space, with its mix of classrooms, lecture halls, faculty offices and common areas, reflects a shift in higher education. Similar to how companies are embracing open office design and collaborative spaces to provide employees with a mix of workspaces, institutions are providing students with more facilities to support a wider range of learning styles.

To achieve this vision of a more collaborative and unified campus, Maxfield and several stakeholders from Providence College launched a design competition among several architecture firms. The competition brief called for a classroom wing addition to Dore Hall, a nearly 100-year-old brick residence hall on campus.

Upon seeing the request, Providence-based firm SMMA recognized an opportunity to design a space that would be more than just a building addition.

Spearheaded by principal John Scott, SMMA set out to design the center around the metaphors of crossroads and intersections. To achieve this, the firm first conducted a classroom utilization study across all departments and curricula to determine the size and number of classrooms needed in the building.

After meeting with students, faculty, administration, campus planning, engineering services and institutional advancement to source design information, the firm settled on a plan that would support the business school’s shift toward a project-based learning model; students would be able to share the outcomes and collaborate on learning goals with their teachers.

The plan called for a repurposing of Dore Hall for faculty offices and construction of a new two-story active classroom addition with an interconnected, double-height atrium. Aesthetically, SMMA worked to unify the new and old spaces by playing the curved wood wall of the classroom wing against the existing masonry building. The added wood window screens inside the atrium side of Dore Hall helped create a complementary and contemporary image.

“We wanted to give Dore Hall new life,” Scott said. “It felt like it was part of one building, which was what we were trying to accomplish. It is more than a simple addition of a classroom wing. We were creating a new entity that works as one.”

SMMA won the commission.

The south entrance to the Arthur F. and Patricia Center for Business Studies at Providence College

After opening to students in 2017, the Arthur F. and Patricia Ryan Center for Business Studies has become a hot spot for business school students and students from the rest of the college’s programs. The atrium, which unites the renovated Dore Hall with the modern classroom wing, has perhaps been the most revolutionary change to how students and educators interact on campus.

The space boasts a café — which is often open late for night owls — group study areas, a finance lab and “The Mesa,” a place where students meet or pause while overlooking the atrium. On the ceiling, scattered skylights bring natural light into the atrium, which changes direction throughout the course of the day.

“Even though it has a grand, multistory atrium, it feels cozy,” Maxfield said. “The atrium is so light and brings the outside and nature into the space, but overall the building still feels intimate, and the lounge at the front of the building has a homelike feel for studying, resting or chatting quietly with a classmate, friend or colleague. I like that the building is both impressive and imposing to new visitors and comfortable and welcoming to those traversing across campus.”

The nature of how students learn has also evolved with the space. The additional classrooms have allowed professors to encourage more group work to solve problems, and the lecture format has been replaced across many courses with more interactive teaching methods. The business school even created a new freshman course, Data Analytics for Business, which takes advantage of resources like the Finance Lab.

“The many collaboration rooms, and simply that students and faculty participating in business education can all work, study and eat in one place, help promote collaboration and engagement,” Maxfield said. “Many in the faculty were already itching to teach in a manner where the professor is more a coach than ‘a sage on the stage,’ but the classrooms, designed for active learning, have also encouraged faculty who have always relied on lecture format to change up their pedagogy.”

Learning inevitability spills out to the atrium, which was designed to be a multipurpose space. It allows the college to host large events that cater to an audience that exceeds lecture hall capacity. A large screen can be lowered to stream sporting events, and notable companies and organizations can host impromptu career fairs in the spacious common area.

The most surprising aspect of the new addition has been the ease with which students make the space their own. While each room has a certain pairing of seats and desks, it is not uncommon to see students rearrange furniture to fit their current needs.

"It’s amazing how it’s used by the students,” Scott said. “You would think that it would be noisy, and they would be doing different things, but they use it to study between classes. It is also used by other students that are not in the business school, and has become a great learning and collaboration space.”

The Arthur F. and Patricia Ryan Center’s atrium might offer more than a new communal gathering place for students and faculty; it represents an antidote to a world populated by screens and declining human interaction. By breaking down the walls between the classroom and public space, the business center fosters a more direct, human relationship among its community.

“It is an incredible privilege to work directly with students and colleagues unmediated by technology like video, phones or asynchronous computer-based instruction,” Maxfield said. “Making the most of that great privilege involves designing spaces that nurture and support the direct connection we are lucky enough to have with our students, and with one another, as faculty and staff.”

This feature was produced in collaboration between Bisnow Branded Content and SMMA. Bisnow news staff was not involved in the production of this content.