KALAMAZOO – This September, Kalamazoo College dedicated a new building for the Arcus Center for Social Justice Leadership, designed in collaboration with Chicago-based architects Studio Gang. The studio’s founder, Jeanne Gang, shared insights with Mark about the building’s atmosphere, its approach toward social issues, and a few of its finer construction details.
How did you shape spaces for the discussion of difficult, often sensitive social justice issues in a public, institutional setting?
Looking back to the civil rights movement in the US, we found that the planning for many of the most important marches and social justice movements took place around someone's kitchen table, in someone's living room, or in the basement of a small church. Dr. Martin Luther King strategised peaceful protests in the basement of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, for example.
When we interviewed Arcus Center staff, Kalamazoo College students, and community organisers, they wanted this important work of social justice to become visible and felt it deserved to come up out of the basement. But at the same time, we thought that introducing the domestic elements of the kitchen, fireplace, and hearth into the centre of the space would help people feel comfortable so they could more easily have conversations about difficult issues.
Architects tend to be normative or silent on the issue of gender identification. What architectural gestures have you employed in the Arcus Center to address gender?
Gender is much more complex than our society currently acknowledges. The binary division of gender between man and woman doesn't reflect reality and the many different ways people actually identify and express their gender. One thing we addressed in the design is eliminating the typical division between men's and women's restrooms, which is required by law in state building codes.
We designed small, singular private rooms that don't force individuals to make awkward declarations about gender in order to use them. Despite being a seemingly easy solution, it required us to have discussions with building officials to explain why we weren't providing the typical men's and women's toilets. They understood and gave us a singular exception, but there is work to be done to eliminate bias from codes.
Cordwood masonry is the building’s defining exterior feature. What are some benefits of this technique? How, if at all, was the wood treated or processed prior to construction?
The white cedar is naturally resistant to rot and insects, and it was sustainably harvested in the region near Kalamazoo. In order to condition the wood and allow it to become dimensionally stable, it was dried for a full year before the wall's construction. The check that develops in each log is placed in the downward direction ('6 o'clock') to avoid water retention. This natural process protects the wood, so the cross cuts aren't treated with chemicals in any way. It's also worth mentioning that by avoiding heavy processing, the material emits very little carbon; instead, it sequesters carbon that the tree captured while it grew.