Alma Mater and Alumni Matters: Robert H. Lee Alumni Centre and UBC Student Union Building, Vancouver, British Columbia
PROJECTS Robert H. Lee Alumni Centre and UBC Student Union Building, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, British Columbia
ARCHITECTS Alumni Centre—KPMB Architects | HCMA Architecture + Design Architects in Joint Venture; Student Union Building—DIALOG and B+H Associated Architects
TEXT Courtney Healey
PHOTOS Nic Lehoux (Alumni Centre) and Ema Peters (UBC Student Union Building)
Eight thousand first-year students arrive at the University of British Columbia’s Vancouver campus each September. Nervous and eager, they take their first steps into adult life. Over the next four years, their alma mater will work hard to mould them into contributing members of society—and, the university also hopes, into future contributors to UBC’s coffers.
This transition from tuition-paying undergrad to donation-making alumnus is big business at universities across North America. At UBC, the distance between the two states can be precisely measured in the 10-metre-wide slot between two new buildings: the AMS Nest student centre designed by DIALOG in partnership with B+H, and the Richard H. Lee Alumni Centre by KPMB with HCMA.
UBC has been in the midst of a building boom over the past decade, developing at a rate unseen since the 1960s. Unique among the university’s current projects, the AMS Nest’s and Alumni Centre’s clients are independent not-for-profit societies led by current and former students respectively—the Alma Mater Society (AMS) and the Alumni Association. Both societies originated with the founding of the University a century ago. The AMS has a long history of spearheading and funding the construction of student amenity buildings—including UBC’s first gyms, stadiums and all three student centres to date. The Alumni Association, formerly headquartered in a heritage house on the edge of campus, has traditionally focused on organizing class reunions, homecoming events and alumni newsletters. In recent years, following decades of government disinvestment in higher education, it has evolved to become a key agent in UBC’s marketing and development strategies.
The new Alumni Centre is located at the intersection of East Mall and University Boulevard, the main gateway to campus, where the 1913 Neoclassical plan locks into the city grid. KPMB partner Shirley Blumberg, FRAIC, and HCMA partner Karen Marler, FRAIC (whose firms authored the current University Boulevard Neighbourhood master plan) view the Alumni Centre as one small piece in UBC’s overall shift from a suburban to a more urban campus, contributing to the mixed-use intensification of student services.
The idea for the Alumni Centre began 10 years ago, when a survey revealed that campus visits were the primary form of connection for alums, but that they didn’t feel welcome when they came. The Alumni Association subsequently petitioned the University for a new 42,000- square-foot “home for life” in the heart of campus. Funded entirely by alumni, the building is a monument to their individual and collective success. Beyond providing a home base for alums, the building functions as a general welcome centre and outreach facility, hosting a continuous program of scholarly and social events highlighting faculty research and industry achievements. KPMB and HCMA worked closely with the various stakeholder groups (including UBC’s Board of Governors, who also chose to make the new building their home) to create a cohesive pavilion accommodating flexible spaces for multiple uses.
KPMB is known for delivering quality contemporary buildings that unify large architectural moves with carefully conceived details and material choices. The Alumni Centre is no exception. The tightly controlled program is arranged in an immediately legible rectangular plan bisected by circulation; a triangular grand stair volume is appended to the south elevation. The west side of the building contains the public spaces—café and library on the main level, large hall on the second, meeting and board rooms on the third. The east side is populated with smaller offices and back-of-house functions. The whole is wrapped in finely fritted curtain wall. Entering the lobby feels like arriving at a luxury hotel—impressive considering the tight construction budget of just over $300 per square foot.
The small building is well served by the architecture team’s straightforward approach. Floors in public areas are finished in large-scale units of beige stone, hewn on the main level and smooth on upper levels. Ceilings and soffits are rough-sawn cedar. The library is flanked by white millwork and an oversized fireplace clad in mill-finished steel plate. White brick clads the service core, inside and out. But the main architectural event is the stair: enormous steel trusses are buried inside its meticulously detailed wood cladding, with rough cedar used again on the outer surfaces and smooth Douglas fir on the inner. The stair is massive, but it appears light as it dances back and forth through the sun-filled volume, culminating in a cantilevered lounge on the top floor.
On the lower level, the architects provided minimally designed office and meeting spaces. The area has since become home to UBC’s fledgling entrepreneurship programs. On most days, there is a steady stream of students, staff and faculty flowing through the main level café and meeting quietly in the adjacent library and lounge spaces. Events take place at all times and the building is designed to allow for overlapping functions, primarily through the provision of pocket and sliding doors to close off individual spaces, as well as moveable walls to divide the large hall.
Exiting the lobby on the north side delivers you onto a slim paved walkway between the two buildings and, though it overlooks a large plaza, this space remains perpetually in shadow and defined by the looming presence of the AMS Nest rising to the north and east. This addition to the existing student centre is six times the size of the Alumni Centre. It houses a similar program (in greater quantities) of bookable rooms, large event spaces, cafés, council chambers and offices, as well as many more uses such as a daycare, radio station, newspaper, theatre, art gallery, climbing wall and space for over 300 clubs.
The AMS Nest is the product of an intense student-led campaign to renovate and expand the 1968 Student Union Building (known as the SUB) by adding 50% more space to accommodate the needs of a growing campus population. The student-led Alma Mater Society successfully lobbied the University for an unprecedented amount of control over the selection of the architects and a primary voice throughout the design process. Students will also pay most of the $107-million project cost over the coming decades, through a mandatory student fee and increased revenue streams from restaurants and room rentals. The University selected an initial pool of seven firms that were narrowed down to three by a campus-wide student vote, with the final selection resting primarily with the AMS.
The shortlisted firms delivered presentations, set up dedicated websites for student engagement, and mounted exhaustive social media campaigns, including creating YouTube videos that formed the basis for the student vote. DIALOG Principal Joost Bakker, FRAIC, says their firm has never worked so hard to secure a project. He believes that DIALOG and B+H were ultimately chosen because they listened closely and asked a lot of questions, turning their shortlist interview into a collaborative workshop rather than telling students what was best for them.
That initial strategy of workshops and collaborative discovery would continue for the next five years. As a new AMS student president and council was elected each year, the client group constantly changed. But the principles established at the beginning of the project—notions of advocacy, sustainability, and fostering interaction amongst a diverse community—remained touchstones. For the architects, a core move towards supporting these goals involved thinking of the building as a vertical village, and organizing its varied program along a main street—a central circulation spine that extended the SUB’s lower-level corridor.
Early on, the architects also decided to support a student-led campaign to save a grassy knoll along the eastern site boundary. This provided the central organizing figure of the plan. The knoll is bisected with a glazed wall, preserving an exterior portion for sunny barbecues and creating an interior portion for terraced seating. A huge five-storey atrium ringed with open walkways encapsulates the knoll, bringing light deep into the building and creating the kind of visual connection across diverse program elements that always seemed lacking in the old SUB. A suspended ovoid form punctuates the centre of the atrium: clad in acoustic batt and curved wood slats, it is the “nest” from which the entire building eventually received its name. Inside, it houses a black-box presentation venue, while an informal beanbag-strewn lounge rests on top.
The bulk of the building is arranged in a C-shape around the nest and atrium, with a mix of student-run and commercial food enterprises on the lower levels. Bookable rooms, offices and club spaces form the majority of the program on upper levels. The top floor contains the most sedate program: the student council chamber, a daycare and a rooftop garden to the south, along with the grad student society offices and a high-end restaurant to the north. The sawtoothed timber-and-glass atrium roof bridges between the two.
The lobed forms and swooping asymmetry of the lower level and ground-floor plans create the sense of always entering the building from a side entrance and progressing through the space slightly off-kilter, somewhat akin to being shot through a pinball machine. But the geometry also creates small eddies of pause where people gather, like the mini-amphitheatre created outside a newly visible campus radio station.
These layouts attest to a complex and, at times, unwieldy student-driven decision-making process. Putting official boosterism aside, when the University talks about engagement, it often boils down to donations. But genuinely engaging students in shaping their campus requires relinquishing control and embracing the happenstance that inevitably arises along the way.
Following a series of early charrettes with the stakeholder groups, the architects presented five different building concepts to the campus-wide community. Throughout the project, DIALOG operated a satellite office or “design cube” inside the old SUB to invite even more input and student-generated ideas. At various points, the design team was juggling both a giant slide through the atrium and a potential homeless shelter to serve the transient population that accesses SUB facilities each day. Keeping more balls in the air, the architects supported students again as they lobbied to amend the campus design guidelines. The AMS felt strongly that the Nest should stand out from its white-brick surroundings and advocated for the textured brown panels that now clad the north and south volumes. The brown boxes are separated by a large swath of glazing along the west elevation and a curved zinc figure along the east.
As the campus continues to densify, it has become popular to think of it as a small city—when, in reality, it functions more like a feudal state with each group vying for its own piece of the pie.
In the end, was it really necessary to create two separate buildings with arguably redundant programs? Forced into an awkward physical and psychological relationship, the space between them seems a symbol of the age-old wedge between students and administration. An alternate reality might have imagined the two as a single building—where alumni donated to a new student centre that they viewed as their “home for life” amongst (and not apart from) the current student body. What if the Board of Governors and the AMS shared a chamber? What if the entrepreneurship hub coexisted alongside student-run businesses, to their mutual benefit?
As they stand, the AMS Nest and Alumni Centre each presents a model of the client it serves. The Nest’s spatial and material heterogeneity evokes its potential to be all things to all people, inviting every one of the university’s 50,000 students to forge his or her own identity amongst the crowd. The Alumni Centre is poised and serene, displaying an image of distinguished success—a pinstriped gentleman who gestures to the dreadlocked undergrad behind him in a way that says, “play your cards right, kid, and this could be you someday.”
Writer and intern architect Courtney Healey is an alumnus of the University of British Columbia and Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey.
Robert H. Lee Alumni Centre | ARCHITECTS KPMB Architects | HCMA Architecture + Design Architects in Joint Venture | CLIENT UBC Properties Trust | ARCHITECT TEAM KPMB—Shirley Blumberg, Bruno Weber, Andrew Dyke, Sanaz Shirshekar, Matt Krivosudsky, Bryn Marler, Lily Huang, David Poloway, Marcus Colonna, Coben Christiansen. HCMA—Karen Marler, Daniel Philippot, Elena Chernyshov, Craig West, Steve DiPasquale, Rachel Wilson, Karen Nolan, James Woodall. | STRUCTURAL Glotman Simpson | MECHANICAL MMM Group | ELECTRICAL Stantec Consulting | LANDSCAPE PhiLlips Farevaag Smallenberg | CIVIL Kamps Engineering | INTERIORS KPMB Architects | HCMA Architecture + Design Architects in Joint Venture | SPECIFICATIONS Keyword Specifications Inc. | CODE LMDG Consultants | GEOTECHNICAL Geopacific | ENVIRONMENTAL HCMA | ACOUSTIC RWDI/DLA | ENVELOPE Spratt Emanuel | AV UBC-AV | ELEVATOR Vertech Elevator Services Inc. | WASTE MANAGEMENT/TRAFFIC Bunt and Associates | CONTRACTOR Syncra Construction | AREA 41,700 ft2 | BUDGET $12.8 M | COMPLETION September 2015
UBC Student Union Building | ARCHITECTS DIALOG and B+H associated Architects |
CLIENT UBC Alma Mater Society | ARCHITECT TEAM DIALOG—Joost Bakker, Bruce Haden, Kate Gerson, Andrew Larigakis, Peter Atkinson, Deryk Whitehead, Duff Marrs. B+H—Douglas Birkenshaw, Kevin Stelzer. | STRUCTURAL Read Jones Christoffersen Ltd. | MECHANICAL AME Group | ELECTRICAL Applied Engineering Solutions | LANDSCAPE PWL Partnership / PFS Studio | INTERIORS DIALOG and B+H CHIL Design | CONTRACTOR Bird
Construction | PROJECT MANAGER MHPM & UBC Properties | CODE LMDG Building Code Consultants | AREA 255,000 ft2 | BUDGET $103 M | COMPLETION September 2015