One of the more unusual aspects of our GWU project is its treatment of classrooms and student study areas. Rather than locating teaching spaces along the exterior walls (where the windows are), the classrooms in this building are deliberately set back from its skin, and sit in the midst of a six-story atrium of vibrant student activity.
Why did we do this? On one hand, this move recognizes that classrooms, which make extensive use of visual display devices, like projectors and electronic displays, frequently require that shades be drawn over the windows, in essence negating their effectiveness and utility. Many of the classrooms we have seen recently have their shades permanently lowered in response to the heavy use of AV technologies.
On another hand, when the classrooms and faculty offices use up all the windows on the building’s perimeter, there are usually only a few left for the spaces where students spend their time outside of class — that “token” study lounge, most typically. Consequently, these spaces are not always as successful as their architects hope they will be.
This building set out to upend these conventional relationships. While we thought it was very important to locate the classrooms and student study areas in very close proximity to one another (formal and informal learning environments reinforcing one another), we recognized that keeping students in the building was the key to deeper, lifelong learning. For this reason, we “liberated” the entirety of the building’s most dramatic side (the one facing Washington Circle Park) of its classrooms, and instead lined it with a rich variety of study spaces geared entirely towards students. These spaces include active study areas, enclosed quiet study areas, kitchenettes and lounges — all of which completely encircle the classrooms, which are treated like discrete objects in this sea of student space.
In the open study spaces, natural light and exterior views over downtown Washington are abundant through floor-to-ceiling glass windows. In the adjacent classrooms, privacy (acoustic and visual) is maintained for presentation and focused discussion. Outer study zone windows provide a panoramic prospect over the city. Interior classroom windows, punched through the thick skin of the inner classroom volumes, provide a psychological connection to an inner academic neighborhood.
This unique planning approach to the program enabled us to treat the architecture in this part of the building in a very theatrical way. On each floor, classrooms “drift” in a horizontal expanse that is the unique product of the building’s peculiar triangular footprint, its cast-in-place, post-tensioned concrete frame and its irregular column grid. (Think of the way that bumper cars are free to move in any horizontal direction; ‘front,’ ‘side’ and ‘rear’ are almost meaningless distinctions.)
Because the program brief called for classrooms of differing size, they could not be easily stacked one atop the other. Instead, by altering their relative placement from one floor to the next, we were able to create a wonderful variety of habitable conditions: two-story spaces, bridges, and interior ‘rooftop terraces.’
Finally, to mitigate the noise generated in this six-story “room,” and to impart a sense of material warmth, we elected to wrap the classrooms in horizontally banded, acoustic wood panels. When viewed from the exterior, this treatment also gives the design intent legibility. Even from a considerable distance, the irregular pattern of wood-clad classrooms is clearly visible behind the transparent façade, and can be likened to a stack of tightly woven baskets.