When a federal courthouse in Hempstead, N.Y. was decommissioned, Hofstra University decided to renovate the unusual circular structure as an addition to its graduate school facilities. TEK Architects of New York City collaborated with Diversified Systems, a Kenilworth, N.J. firm specializing in audio/video and broadcast engineering, to remake the ’60s-era courthouse into 65,000 square feet of high-tech classroom, lab, and office space, renamed Hagedorn Hall.
Indicative of its transformation, a red-on-black “ticker tape” flickers across the building’s façade, relaying student announcements, news, and quotations from Mark Twain and Thoreau. The messages appear to originate from inside the building, where a long, metal-paneled “Media Wall” articulates a double-height entry area. The LED panels have viewing angles of 140 degrees, allowing the text to be read from ground-level and at some distance.
“The Media Wall is a completely interactive design element — touchscreens give students access to class schedules, campus news, and other information,” says TEK principal Charles Thanhauser, who believes that new technology should be celebrated. “Electronic and digital technology can be used to convey information to people in exciting new ways,” he proclaims.
Hagedorn Hall now serves as the home to Hofstra’s new School of Education and Allied Human Sciences and Institute for Development in the Advanced Sciences. The traditional exterior of the building is faced with beige brick accented by bronze windows, but TEK has given it a modernist overlay, using contemporary materials — glass, aluminum, and GFRC (glass fiber reinforced cement).
“The layout of the building was specific to a courthouse,” relates Thanhauser. “There were holding cells, as well as rooms for judges, marshalls, the jury, and prisoners. The different groups couldn’t mingle and it was all rather unpleasant.” In addition, the circular shape of the building had led to a layout that was extremely confusing. “It was like an onion with a series of round corridors in the middle,” says Thanhauser. “Dante’s design for hell was a series of round corridors.”
Faced with this kind of a challenge, the architects decided the first order of business was to give a sense of place and orientation to the building. Step one was to cut a large slice into the circle, as if it were a pie, creating the new entryway to fill the cutout space. TEK then designed new radiating corridors to break up the circular corridors into segments, which also allowed natural light to penetrate the core of the building, adding life to a space that was once very stagnant.
A second step in the orientation process was the use of color-coded portals and carpets. “You can tell where you where by the color,” explains Thanhauser. “This helps people from getting lost, and they can easily explain where they are by color, for example, in ‘the green area.’” Each layer of the concentrically planned interior is further marked by “conservation areas,” which encourage students and faculty to interact. Workstations include niches for one to four people, who can work alone or meet and have a meal.
Another modern touch in the vaulted reception area is the translucent ceiling, made of stretched fabric and illuminated by warm fluorescent lighting above it. “This creates a luminous ceiling, like a skylight,” says Thanhauser, whose firm also designed the lighting for this project. Fluorescent sources for general lighting are supplemented by incandescent accents in specific areas to enhance interesting objects or spaces.
Lighting is an area where the modernist philosophy and design approach of the architects at TEK shine through. “You can have a neo-classical building with state-of-the-art lighting controls,” notes Thanhauser, where “technology can enhance architecture.”
“We had many meetings with user groups,” Thanhauser says, “and got a lot of information from the administration and the dean, James Johnson. He wants Hofstra to be a state-of-the-art school and to reflect the world of computers and mutlimedia. We wanted to create an environment that reflects this commitment to technology. It should be reflected in the architecture.”
Kevin Collins, vice president of Diversified Systems, says his firm “had fun with this project, coming up with creative ideas for new technology to add to the student experience.” The A/V team also did their homework — meeting with faculty members and testing what would work and what wouldn’t. “We did product demo’s and brought in samples to make sure the end-users would be comfortable with the products we installed,” says Collins. “Everybody was part of the process.
“We have a practical knowledge of the technology and can coordinate with the architects to make it seamless.”
Collins points out that Hagedorn Hall is populated by graduate-level students. “It’s not for kids with skateboards and backpacks. The students are professionals and the environment reflects that.” In a “cyber cafe,” for example, the technology creates a soothing environment conducive to learning. “Images on rear-projection LCD screens might be of the Costa Rican rainforest,” he says, “with audio of birds and water, rather than video games.”
The high-tech classrooms feature ceiling-mounted video projectors and electronic whiteboards. “The board has an interactive surface,” Collins explains, which allows material displayed on it to be edited, annotated, and then saved. “You can save your notes and e-mail to the students.”
Six counseling rooms are outfitted with video cameras hidden behind small, smoked-glass domes on the ceiling. “They can video-tape the graduate students as they are counseling clients,” notes Collins. “Then they can use the tapes for future teaching or look at them with a live audience for training.” The cameras have remote pan-and-tilt capability, controlled directly from the classrooms.
The multimedia equipment in the classrooms is controlled with wall-mounted panels. “It is an Internet-based system, all hooked into a central PC for feedback,” Collins points out. One classroom can be used a large space with three screens or divided into three separate rooms, each with its own plasma screen. “One button on the wall changes it all,” says Collins. “We worked with the architects to fit the systems in, yet not let the architectural aesthetic be affected. We added a layer to their construction drawings, putting in control rooms and the like. What’s exciting is how we could provide the faculty with tools that enhance the learning process but are not too cumbersome to use.”
TEK’s modernist revision to the building justifies its technological sophistication. “It makes no sense to put 21st-century technology into a building that looks like it was built for George III,” notes Thanhauser. “We are interested in pushing the envelope. In the tech’ boom of the ’90s, we worked with a lot of ‘new media’ people and saw how technology changes the way we work. Hofstra is an example of technology changing the way we learn.”