A Space Divided - Educational Winner: Ursas Café, Washington University, St. Louis

Aug. 7, 2001
University café combines work and play

You could say it has a split personality.

The newest addition to the Washington University campus in St. Louis is half hip and edgy, and half contemplative with a space ideal for flash-card flipping, and intense cramming. Ursas Café is all things to all students - a hangout, study room, and the location of Super Bowl parties, poetry readings, and memory-making games of Trivial Pursuit.

"South 40," the primary residential area of campus, is home to roughly 2,500 students. "Part of what we wanted to do there was to have a space that was not just a part of one residence hall - but would be for all of the students of the residence halls," says James E. McLeod, dean of the college of Arts and Sciences and vice chancellor for students at Washington University, about the overlying goal for the café.

With this in mind, and a prime location at the crossroads of two major arteries in the heart of Washington University's residential community, St. Louis-based Mackey Mitchell Associates, along with environmental graphics design firm Ten 8 Group, pulled together a game-inspired interior that combines fun and funky in a space that energizes students with black lights and fruit smoothies.
The "night club meets library" design provides students with a one-stop work-and-play space. As an alternative to cafeteria food, students can select from a menu of wraps, coffee, ice cream, and fruit drinks before sitting down to read or shooting a game of pool with friends. Seventy percent of the 7,250-square-foot café is designated as "active" space, with 20 percent allocated for quiet activities.

Leaving their books behind, students in search of a place where great conversation and good friends converge can head to the café where pool tables and foosball beg to be played. Walls lined in perforated metal lit with black lights bask the space in dim light. "The back wall of the space is a sculptural wall made up of supermarket surveillance mirrors. It's really an ethereal space," says Paul Wuennenberg, principal, Mackey Mitchell Associates.

Booths with inlaid board games encourage students to challenge their brains and friends to games such as Parcheesi, Backgammon, Monopoly, and Checkers. "It was meant to be the interactive, 'meet me at the Scrabble table' space," says Mackey Mitchell Senior Associate Angela Feddersen Heinze. Musicians and poets entertain on the small, lit stage that is part of Ursas' active space.
Entering the café, students are sure to gravitate to the brightly colored iMac computers. The cyber lounge is an ideal space to surf the Internet. Window film is used to create wedge-shaped triangles similar to those found on a Backgammon board to create drama.

Ursas Café also provides space for the most laborious task tackled by the University's dedicated learners - studying. Although the Ursas "quiet" space is more subdued, it's far from boring. The "games" theme provides continuity between the two areas, and is evident in the softly painted Backgammon shapes on one wall, and the more contemplative, two-person games (such as Chess) inlaid on tabletops.

When the cold, Midwestern winters blow blustery winds though St. Louis, students can relax in front of a limestone and slate hearth, warming themselves next to the fire. The large, curved stone wall provides the perfect backdrop for intimate performances such as readings.

Data ports are located throughout the space, for those laptop-lugging students eager to finish term papers and essays, drop Mom and Dad good news on the latest test score, and conduct research online. A color palette of soft neutrals and warm wood tones is punched up with contemporary rugs, featuring geometric forms, and quirky chandeliers. Armchairs are upholstered in lively patterned fabrics, and "can't-believe-they're-not-real-leather" sofas provide comfort and style without sacrificing durability. The quiet lounge was carefully insulated to limit the sound transference between the two spaces.

Ursas Café radiates energy and is the ideal setting for all out-of-class, awake-hour student activities. As a true testament to its success, McLeod says, "The students are requesting that it be open later, and later, and later." So it seems that the only thing that needs tweaking at Ursas Café is the schedule.

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