A Place to Belong: University Housing Shapes Community-Building at Penn

Lauder College House, University of Pennsylvania. (Penn/Jeffrey Totaro)

Lauder College House, University of Pennsylvania. (Penn/Jeffrey Totaro)

A Conversation with Cam Grey, Mitchell Holston, Karu Kozuma, Kathryn McDonald, Dana Reed, and Peter Sterling.

Thoughtfully designed common spaces are essential to the long-term success of residential housing on college and university campuses. Surrounding context and evolving student and programmatic requirements impact how these spaces are successfully woven into a building, offering support and opportunities for community members to engage and interact.

The University of Pennsylvania’s residential College House community offers interesting insight into the dynamics of building community and shared spaces, where two recently completed projects provide immersive experiences for students and faculty. Lauder College House, Penn’s first purpose-built college house, provides residences for 350 students, as well as apartments for faculty, staff, and graduate students, arranged around light-filled, double-height common areas. Gutmann College House, located at the western edge of campus, weaves city and campus together through the thoughtful treatment of building mass, materials, and neighborhood-friendly outdoor spaces.

We convened a conversation with representatives from the architectural firm responsible for the design of both projects, Bohlin Cywinski Jackson, and the Penn College House community to explore the design process behind these projects and how the University community uses them now that they are open.

Peter Sterling: What does common space mean in a university setting and especially in an urban campus like Penn, that has a close relationship with the city that surrounds it?

Cam Grey: I think that an institution like Penn, an educational institution and a residential educational institution in a city presents a really powerful opportunity to blur the boundaries between the lived life experience and the learning experience. One of the things that I’ve always felt about the college house experience at Penn is that it’s the place where that boundary is most deliberately blurred. And where, as a consequence, we hope – with our fingers crossed – that our students not only do their real learning, but actually practice their intellectual learning in environments that are not score-based, that are not for a grade.

So my sense about what the communal spaces on a campus like Penn are implicitly, and I think with our two buildings, explicitly designed to do is provide opportunities not only for the development of community sort of writ large, but also the opportunities for our students and our residents to practice adulting – to practice what it means to participate in adult conversation; what it means to be part of a community where you are mindful of other people’s needs as well as your own; how to transition from being in a family with all of the dimensions that has, into a world where they don’t know everybody in that same way. I think that the college house community is a very particular sort of transitional space. It’s a space of opportunity. The community spaces are then necessarily quite multidimensional. They need to be able to do a variety of things.

They need to be spaces for our students to sit quietly on their own to study. But they also need to be able to be nimbly transformed into spaces where they can purposefully interact with staff members or with other members and leaders in the community. One of the things that I especially like about our building: they can be teaching spaces; they can be spaces where the formal parts of the university’s educational mission are practiced and performed as well.

Mitchell Holston: When thinking about community, I think a lot of it really starts within their own suites. Within Lauder, each suite has its own community space. That is, to me, the ground level of where the community building begins. Because currently we’re a four-year house, but now I’m thinking about next year being a first-year house where we’ll have our first year students, that ground level community is more than likely going to be the people that they’re living with. They all have common spaces within their own individual suites. But then outside of that, we have lounge spaces on each floor. That served as a main community space that, I think, primarily our RAs within the building use to build community amongst their students.

We straight up call them community builders; they do at least one community builder on their floor per week. Those lounge spaces really serve as a conduit for them to be able to do that. And the lounge spaces on the floors, for the most part, are outside of the RA rooms on that floor. But then outside of that, we do have other larger spaces within our community. I primarily would pinpoint the living room where we gather and do a lot of our larger, more social programs. It serves as a space that we’re able to catch all students. It’s an open space. Most students, when they’re coming within the building, they can see it regardless of where they’re going within the building. And students can see it and know that if there’s people there. If there’s a commotion, if there’s noise, there’s some type of community building that is happening that we want them to be a part of.

Outdoor view of Lauder College House, University of Pennsylvania.

Lauder College House, University of Pennsylvania. (Penn/Jeffrey Totaro)

Kathryn McDonald: The heart of community building to me is figuring out ways for students to engage and connect with other individuals. So whether that’s through learning, whether it’s having a casual conversation that turns towards more intellectual things, whether it’s grabbing some food together. We have all these multidimensional spaces that do that. And I think one of the unique things though, at least at Penn, is it often feels like we belong to the community at Penn too. The building does. And I think part of that is because of how the access works and what Mitchell was talking about where these two buildings in particular are very open and visible and obviously visible because they’re new and people were excited about new things.

They’re designed with windows everywhere. We have spaces that are purposely meant to be high visibility. But I think that’s what makes it interesting about community building is because it doesn’t always feel like everyone at the table is a Gutmann resident. That helps create more interesting conversations and moments. That’s a unique thing about Penn. Other places I’ve worked, we don’t have the same types of access that we have here at Penn. Every undergraduate student has access to every building on campus, residential building, which makes it unique.

Dana Reed: And students take advantage of that? You feel like people feel they belong to the shared spaces if they don’t live there?

Cam Grey: That’s the hope. Karu, you and Mitchell and I were talking about this just a week or so ago, the notion that as we are thinking about being a first year community, but even now in our four-year community, there’s that interesting tension between this is my place, this is where I am, this is my space, I am a part of this community and it’s bounded and we all share these experiences. But it’s also sort of permeable and open and there’s people that are coming in for other purposes: they’re coming in for learning, they’re coming in to be eating in our cafeteria. It’s doing both of those things and that’s mostly opportunity, but there’s also occasionally tension where those multiple types of community rub up against each other in ways that we might not have anticipated or that we need to think about managing in the moment.

One of those tension points: it’s a building that has one entrance, apart from fire and exits; it’s a controlled entrance, especially in the last sort of three or four years. In the early days of the pandemic and the aftermath, the buildings have become somewhat more difficult to access for people that are not part of the Penn community. We have this really interesting tension, I think, and an ongoing unresolved one, I suspect.

But on the one hand, this building and Gutmann are physically and philosophically designed to participate in the Philadelphia community. Our building sits there with this big open armed hug of the downtown part of Penn. It’s designed in that regard in its physical architecture and then also in the way that Michael thought about the exteriors of the building and the ways that Dana, you broke the harsh lines of the exterior of the building. It’s expressing the permeability of Penn’s relationship to Philadelphia, and yet it’s a building that has one entry and that actually has some obvious reasons why there’s one entry. In the past, we’ve done community events, we’ve done events that are open to the whole of the Philadelphia community. We’ve had the Philadelphia Orchestra bring groups into our living room and open it up to West Philadelphia. But getting people into the building, getting them access to the building in those moments can present a challenge. I think it’s a tension between a philosophy of openness and availability to all on the one hand, and then a need to control and know who is in that space and in that building.

Karu Kozuma: Common spaces are also an interesting experiment to see how students understand their place in a community. How they treat it, how they leave it, how they share it; do they see there are other people impacted by their behaviors, i.e. the housekeeping staff if they leave things? So it gives us a lot of opportunity to be able to see how students understand their role in the community. And then it gives us a chance to be able to think about, well, how do we go along that journey with them so they can recognize that in the one or two or three or four years they’re part of college houses or they’re part of Lauder and Gutmann, what do they learn when they’re sharing this space with others? It’s most certainly not their room from home.

How do we align these opportunities with our mission, which is actually for students to learn more about themselves and others so they can grow and they understand that they do play a larger part in a community. It’s these little things: do they leave things a mess, do they take a piece of furniture away from the common space, are they willing to sit in a common room with a complete stranger and be okay with that? It just gives us so much richness that it makes it fun to see how students respond and gives us a chance to be able to actually shape how they exit Penn. And it may be something as simple as using a common space, but it really touches on a lot of things that we’re trying to impart on these students when they graduate.

Cam Grey:

The piece that we haven’t talked about is dining, communal eating and shared eating. In Gutmann you all have a fairly constrained version of that. And ours, I think, was imagined as a really intimate experience with the notion that you eat together more or less as a family. And we spent a lot of energy and time in those early years working to create a family dining experience. And that, I think, was a real feature of those early years of our community. Now interestingly, there have been various developments on Penn’s campus, which have meant that the dining facilities are now under quite a bit more pressure. There’s a lot more demand for dining, which on the one hand is fantastic because eating together is an ace thing to do, but it also means that the community feel of our small dining space is undergoing something of a transition.

Dana Reed: Okay, does everyone know the story about dining at Gutmann? We started Gutmann and it was hush, hush and we were told, “No dining. No dining. No dining. Maybe a cafe, no dining.” And this very important person said, “I can’t sleep at night unless there’s dining in this house, and I know that you’re about to build the building, but find a way to put it in.” And so it’s hard to balance, I guess, the pedagogical mandates and I suppose, the economics of running of a dining operation.

Cam Grey: I think they travel in the same direction, I do. I think that the pedagogical and the economical elements of eating together travel in the same direction. Community building, needing to feed people that are living on campus and it being a pedagogical opportunity, they all work together … Our hospitality services folks have now opened up the Lauder College House Dining Pavilion as a lunch space for students to take their mentors. It’s supported by the Provost Office and so it’s a free meal for a student to bring somebody. But again, what’s awesome about it is that the initial contact is a mentoring or a support relationship. And then they eat together and they develop the intimacy of their relationship in that.

Mitchell Holston: In thinking about both Gutmann and Lauder together, I really like the use of the outdoor spaces that are inside of our communities. The courtyard within Lauder is a big part of the students’ experience. The courtyard is right in the center, and a lot of our students live on that side of the building where they have to walk through the courtyard to be able to get to those elevators. The courtyard plays a very integral part to what we do here, knowing that it is a big, wide open space so people can go outside, get fresh air. But it also provides a pretty big programming space for us because we do a lot of our larger programs out there.

I really like those uses of space; you’re still within the community, you’re still in our building, you’re still past our access points, et cetera, but you can still have those outdoor components to your experience.

Gutmann College House, University of Pennsylvania

Gutmann College House, University of Pennsylvania (Penn/Jeffrey Totaro)

Design Museum Magazine cover

From Design Museum Magazine Issue 025