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Bridging the Gap

University of Oregon's latest renovation of Allen Hall keeps students connected and inspired.

06/01/2014 By Margie Monin Dombrowski

Like most older buildings on university campuses across the country, the 39,000-square-foot University of Oregon’s Allen Hall for its School of Journalism and Communication was outdated and in desperate need of an upgrade. With the original footprint built in 1923, Allen Hall had a T-shaped wing added in the mid-1950s. Then in the early ’90s, there was an attempt to fuse both sections together where the “T” intersected with the older building to create a new entry, but the result was a confusing circulation system.

“The building had multiple entries,” said Nels Hall, president and design principal of Portland, Ore.-based YGH Architecture, who was hired by the university to bring the building into the 21st century. “It was quite unclear where the front door was. Our job was to look at how to tie the whole thing together, and to unify the interior and exterior,” while also respecting the historic building’s red brick facade and Mid-Century Modern, international-style addition.

“One of the key things was finding a way to create a heart through the building because that’s what it lacked,” noted Hall. Previously, the building had a series of corridors, and it seemed to be begging for a space that unified everything.

The solution, according to Hall, meant incorporating a three-story atrium by adding a new wing stepping back from the historic building.

“The historic facade then becomes an interior facade, so you really see the architecture of the historic building blending in with the architecture of the new,” he said. “That three-story space basically breaks down into almost a figure ‘8’ of circulation in the atrium—the old building on one side, the two wings of the old historic building and the new building crossing the atrium in two spaces, so you’re always coming back to the center. There’s a lot of activity there day and night.”

The building has become a hub of activity. On the main level, users will encounter a cafe adjacent to the atrium, and the building’s largest classroom where there’s enough space to hold conferences and other events. An approximately 600-foot pedestrian mall extends to the atrium, where a three-story glass wall connects the two to serve as the building’s “front door.” An outdoor terrace and indoor informal meeting areas provide ample space for students to socialize and study.

The goal for the new 15,000-square-foot addition was to reflect the rapidly changing field of journalism as it switches from print to a more digital multimedia world. Replacing several traditional classrooms, the top floor of the three-story building now features a “digital commons” learning environment that is on par with the multimedia capacities you’d come to expect in some of the most regarded newsrooms today. The digital commons include large classrooms with state-of-the-art audio/visual equipment, and a production studio for doing newscasts and producing small films.

“It’s a highly flexible series of teaching labs,” said Hall. “There are a lot of sliding glass walls, so they could be broken down for a class lecture, or opened up for working in large groups of students, or even breaking into smaller group discussions.”

While the latest addition to the building takes on a modern look, wood textures throughout add warmth and character, connecting with the outdoor environment and blending in well with the existing brick details. These elements include wood slat ceilings, built-in benches, and the atrium stairway support wall comprised of repurposed wood from an American Elm tree that once grew at that very same spot and had to make way for the new construction.

Glass is used throughout the space, from plentiful windows to glass walls that can be used as a dry erase board, projection screen, or a spot for students to display their projects. There are also a number of TV screens for making announcements and featuring student work. “You get the sense that you’re in a highly connected environment,” said Hall.

The building was also designed with many sustainable and energy-efficient capabilities, including daylighting, natural ventilation, operable windows for faculty offices and classrooms, and shading solutions to reduce glare in teaching spaces.

“We maximized the north and south exposures [using] glass where we can control the glare and heat gain,” said Hall. “There’s a sense as you walk around the building of always looking out, so corridors always end with vistas, breakout spaces and glass at the end of a corridor, and you can see out to the campus. It was a big transformation from what was essentially several interior corridors in the past.”

Allen Hall may have only recently opened in the fall of 2013, but it’s already receiving high marks. “It’s getting a lot of use, particularly the atrium, even from other departments in the university,” said Hall. “It’s looking very successful in terms of being a place for students to have informal discussions and study by themselves. The state-of-the art digital commons and the high technology in the two main classrooms are going to be very flexible for many years to come.”