Uncommon Thinking: At Education Commons by Joel Sanders
Kids have an unshakable, nearly primal need to sprawl. “We found that, when students are absorbing information, they do it in a relaxed posture. It’s not really until they are writing papers that they tend to sit upright,” Joel Sanders explains. That was a cornerstone discovery when Joel Sanders Architect undertook some rigorous ergonomic research on how college students study. Ideally, therefore, study halls should offer both options, plus a few in-between. Sanders has employed this principle on several projects, and he did so again at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.
The pet initiative of the university’s president, the assignment involved turning 7,000 square feet of wasted, empty space—under the bleachers of a venerable red brick sports stadium—into the wired, flexible Education Commons. An obvious challenge was noise, both from the thousands of cheering sports fans directly overhead and from the clanging equipment in the weight-training room next door. The volume destined for Education Commons was also an awkward shape, 300 feet long with a width fluctuating between 18 and 28 feet and a height that stepped upward with the bleachers.
Not only was that ceiling asymmetrical—it also leaked. So Sanders lined it with a rain screen that he painted sky blue, like the walls. he then installed an undulating white canopy, evoking clouds while controlling noise and concealing mechanicals. He divided the space beneath into what he terms “a series of micro-climates”: the entry; the study hall itself, scattered with armchairs and ottomans; and 11 glass-enclosed meeting rooms for group review sessions and the like.
The entry’s flooring is the existing concrete slab, polished. Farther in, graphically patterned nylon carpet appears—essential when stretching out is behavior no longer merely tolerated but practically encouraged.