New Construction Awards 2001 - At the Crossroads

Oct. 8, 2001
A new addition and renovation put students on the right path

At the epicenter of campus is the student union. Perhaps the only place where loitering is encouraged, the union, like its name implies, brings together students from all walks of life. More than the place where ID photos are taken and student government meets, the facility epitomizes the life of today's collegiate population.

Private/Corporate Winner:
Hetzel Union Building/Paul Robeson Cultural Center, Pennsylvania State University, University Park, PA
The building's interior atrium aids in wayfinding and infuses the space with natural light.
(Edward Massery, Massery Photography Inc.)

Affectionately referred to as "the HUB" (Hetzel Union Building), Pennsylvania State University's 140,000-square-foot student union (up until its recent renovation and new addition) was tired, dark, and small. "In the late 1980s, we determined that the space and the facilities of the existing student union, which was built back in the 1950s and expanded in the 1970s, was not up to dealing with the count of students, visitors, staff, and the events we had," explains Craig Millar, associate vice president for student affairs emeritus, Pennsylvania State University. In an effort to demonstrate the university's commitment to its students, it was necessary to not only better address student needs through an expanded, updated, and renovated student union, but also through the relocation and construction of a new Paul Robeson Cultural Center. The two projects combined, adding to the HUB a total of 90,000 square feet of new space.

A university core group headed by Millar formulated a number of overlying guidelines, including the importance of preserving much of the expansive lawn in front of the HUB - a popular venue for university events. Pittsburgh's WTW Architects created a design that would minimize the addition's encroachment onto the lawn, ensuring that only 12 percent of the green space be used to accommodate the new addition and Cultural Center. The plan called for the new addition to be located no more than 95 feet out from the existing building, and gained significant square footage through its east/west expansion.

Additional goals for the project emphasized the need to connect the two facilities, while maintaining a unique presence for the Paul Robeson Cultural Center; accommodate larger numbers of foot traffic through the HUB; and create a more pronounced main entrance on the north side of the facility.

Concerned about the HUB's existing foundation, WTW turned a challenge into an opportunity. "We were a little worried about putting the new foundations up against the old foundations, so we built the addition 24 feet away from the existing building, and that created a four-story atrium which was the gap between the new construction and the old construction," explains Paul Knell, senior principal, WTW Architects, Pittsburgh.

To draw in visitors and students, a crossroads was created. "With the old Hetzel building a lot of traffic walked by outside. When we built the new addition, we said, 'Let's bring that sidewalk inside the building and run it right through this atrium,' " says Knell about Union Street. Running east and west, it has become a major thoroughfare on campus. On the second level, a major North/South pathway was planned, beginning with the facility's new entrance on the north end of the HUB, providing access from Pollock Road. These two indoor "streets" reflect a crossroads concept that simplifies wayfinding and provides access to flanking student organizations, eateries, and lounge spaces. "From this one location, you can glean some real insight into what the heartbeat, the pulse, and the activities are within the context of this one building," says Douglas L. Shuck, principal, WTW Architects. Leading to campus classroom facilities, residence halls, the university book store, and the Paul Robeson Cultural Center, the indoor streets of the HUB have greatly increased traffic through the facility - from roughly 12,000 to 40,000 visitors a day. Student organizations and administrative staff occupy the third and fourth stories of the building.

The Paul Robeson Cultural Center, although connected to the student union, has its own defining architecture and commands a unique presence through its use of materials and its oval shape. Knell explains, "The circle is symbolic of mankind - a symbol of civilization, a symbol of the town, the village, and the individual." Housing a major ballroom, meeting and office space, a stage and full-projection booth, a library, and two galleries, the Paul Robeson Cultural Center personifies the university's dedication, interest, and concern for its multi-cultural student body. The building's exterior consists of materials emblematic of Mother Earth (precast concrete base), man (diamond-shaped windows), and sky (band of metal above the windows).

The new and improved student union and cultural center reflect the spirit of the university, and provide individuals with a snapshot of the culture and campus of one of the most respected higher education learning institutions in the United States. Lounging, studying, eating, and meeting: The recent completion of a new and improved Hetzel Union Building and Paul Robeson Cultural Center addresses the vast needs of Pennsylvania State University's diverse student population.

Jana J. Madsen ([email protected]) is senior associate editor at Buildings magazine.

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