UW-Madison’s Union South takes direction from students
Designers expected student input for the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Union South project, but they scarcely imagined getting ideas from 20,000 people.
“The project used more student participation in the design of the building than perhaps any building ever attempted,” said Jan van den Kieboom, principal in charge of the Union South design and owner of Workshop Architects Inc.
But the process taught organizers that there was room for improvement.
“If there were any tweaks, it would be how to channel that information in a better way to the architect,” said Mark Guthier, director of Wisconsin Union, which includes Union South.
Planners used a student-based committee structure, with teams of nine students working with staff members, faculty and alumni. Each member of each team met with designers during planning.
Designers were patient and understanding, but the process was time-consuming, Guthier said. So, in the future, five-member executive committees, with three students and two staff members, will meet with architects instead of the whole group.
“There were significant challenges,” van den Kieboom said. “There also were little nuggets of just brilliance.”
That included inspiration from a team that assembled a salvaged materials registry to find locally sourced items for the project, as well as one graduate student who made sure that terra cotta brackets from the campus’ historic Schlimgen Building were used in the new union’s coffee and wine bar and built into booths and benches in the Union South entry.
It wasn’t possible to include every suggestion.
“We discussed some building materials that weren’t appropriate for a public building of this nature, like structural wood insulating panels,” van den Kieboom said.
But designers were able to reflect the organic, sustainable and sweeping feel students prioritized for a building that could become a core of their community.
“Students told us they wanted to have a building that was impossible to photograph, that you have to be there to experience,” van den Kieboom said. “That focused the team on designing a building without the idea of capturing it for a magazine cover.”
And it worked.
“On day one, it felt like it was their space,” Guthier said. “People plopped down, opened their laptops and started studying like it had always been there.
“We designed something that was exactly what students wanted.”
Micro-restaurants, for example, took students beyond the food court experience, giving them the chance to see and be seen.
“It creates a building,” van den Kieboom said, “that is thick with choice.”
— Jessica Stephen