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Winter 2013-2014

Transforming Learning Spaces
by Patricia J. Thomas

The Agora in Ancient Greece by J. Bühlmann, Agosto 1881In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth. The earth was without form, and void, and darkness was on the face of the deep.
(Genesis 1:1-2)

Creation began with space...empty, dark, formless space. God, the Master Architect, step by step, day by perhaps-eons-long day, filled it with light and water and land and life. He planned it to accommodate an infinity of uses...in an infinity of ways...by an infinity of living beings.

It may be that an instinctive need for and appreciation of space is imbedded in our primitive DNA. Certainly ancient peoples were drawn to places of space. Greeks built their cities around it and called it the Agora. Later, Romans called it the Forum. Down the millennial timeline, in centuries and countries not yet imagined, it would become a piazza, a village green, a commons...a space for sharing and collaboration.

The literal meaning of the Greeks’ Agora was “gathering place.” There, indeed, gathered philosophers, playwrights, poets, heroes, leaders, and ordinary citizens who would embrace the milieu to talk, write, communicate, create, and put forth ideas...ideas that would produce concepts of science, mathematics, language, art, architecture, engineering, medicine, government.  Civilization would be formed within imaginative, purposeful, instructive space.

The concept of space as a definable resource seems as nebulous as air—yet resource it is. For an educational institution whose very reason for being revolves around the same concepts that shaped—and continue to shape—civilization, it is a resource to be tapped. This certainly is true for Marywood University. When the University recognized that a changing world and its own rapid growth required rethinking a key component of its educational mission—the library—a primary consideration became the use of space. Marywood is blessed with its space. The campus is spacious compared to many other local institutions.  The IHM Sisters, with inspired vision, had planned and purchased land for generous expansion, if and when the time should request it.

Now, nearly a century since Marywood’s founding, the time has inevitably begged the question, and the University looks for answers. How can available space—both interior and exterior—be utilized to enhance study and learning? How should it be divided? Could it serve both university and community?  Could it be altered to accommodate changes in purpose? How could a modern edifice be integrated into a traditional campus?  

If space is the “final frontier,” as the classic Star Trek series proclaimed, then Gregory K. Hunt, FAIA, Founding Dean of Marywood’s School of Architecture, who has spent much of his life studying, teaching, and practicing the art, mechanics, and philosophy of using space, has “boldly gone where no man has gone before.”

Certainly, he sees bold opportunity in Marywood’s challenge of space. He recognizes it as a chance to give solid shape to innovative ideas and to transform abstract concepts into a physical form that enriches both institution and region—not to mention offering Marywood’s Architectural students the once-in-a-lifetime experience of being part of the process.

Could space actually inform education?   

“Absolutely,” Dean Hunt says. “Physical space can affect how we teach and learn. Small, quiet space inspires thought...focus.  Large light-filled space invites collaboration...discussion....brainstorming. Open space promotes serendipity... encounter...display.” Closed space, he notes, directs your mind inward. Space, he points out, is dimensional. Space has height and depth in addition to breadth and width. “What you can do with an eight-foot ceilingis not the same as what you can do with a 20-foot ceiling.”

Moreover, he notes, space is both interior and exterior. Interior space may be altered by furnishings—how many and what type, whether they are movable or fixed, of what materials they are made, and so many other factors. Exterior space functions not only through its own shape and substance, but in relationship to other elements around it.

The positioning of a new building on campus is, of course, a matter of space. Yet, it is not merely a question of where a structure might find adequate room—but where, by its very presence within the geography of campus space, the location itself would present a sweeping visual statement of Marywood’s distinctive, dynamic personality—joining past, present, and future in one inspiring whole.

That challenge was taken on by the brilliantly creative architectural firms of Bohlin Cywinski Jackson, Hemmler + Camayd, and Michael Vergason Landscape Architects.

“A library or learning commons wants to be the heart of the campus,” David Hemmler declared. Treatment of its space would be vital.

They would create an axial path from the landmark Arch, through a Memorial Garden, symbolizing the footprint of the former Motherhouse...leading directly to a spectacular new Learning Commons. The breathtaking building would instantly dominate its space, yet it would lead on, still deeper into the center of the campus, forming one wall of a beckoning green quadrangle, bounded by the Center for Architectural Studies, the Shields Center for Visual Arts, and the Insalaco Center for Studio Arts—the expansive, open setting thus formed, welcoming summer concerts, or perhaps readings, performances, and poetry.  

The space itself, Dean Hunt says, wraps together art and literature. It is the ancient concept of the agora—brought beautifully into the 21st century.  

The concept of “library,” in fact, hearkens back to a golden age of learning and the great library of Alexandria—which was, in effect, a “learning commons,” not only housing the world’s precious books but also sheltering a community of scholars, philosophers, researchers, and teachers who studied and shared...enriching and changing their world.

So, too, would Marywood’s Learning Commons become a space in which to both study in solitude and to reach out and share knowledge....enriching and changing communities, families, professions worldwide.

The design of Marywood’s Learning Commons carries space upward, in a soaring progression of functions—from busy and collaborative to secluded and solitary. The building will be entered mid-level in a spacious atrium that rises through floors above and below, and is capped by a generous sky window, bathing floors and stairwells with natural light. The entry level is the social, interactive floor...the place to see and be seen...the equivalent of the town square. As you descend or rise, spaces progressively become quieter or more collaborative. The large social interactive or study areas of the main floor break down into smaller group spaces; at the uppermost floors, a haven of quiet space for individual study beckons the contemplative learner.

“There is space for everyone and for the entire spectrum of scholarly activity or just reading a good book next to a fireplace, in a sunlit space with a view of Scranton’s western mountains,” Gabriel Hodge, AIA, Senior Associate at Bohlin Cywinski Jackson Architects, noted.

The space is majestic, but where are the books—the venerable stacks that most associate with a library? The concept of the library has taken a leap into the information age and Marywood’s next century. It is not a storehouse for books, but a user-focused, service-rich environment for study and collaboration. The books are still safely there—compressed into a state-of-the-art automated storage and retrieval system, thus allowing more multi-use space. Marywood’s library incorporates this advanced technological use of space in fulfilling a library’s traditional mission.

Mary Anne Fedrick, Ph.D., retired Dean of the Reap College of Education and Human Development, zeroed in on the changing nature of the library.

Students think of the library more as a place to use information...not necessarily to find it. They already know how to locate information,” said Dr. Fedrick. “They need opportunities to discuss, exchange ideas, find inspiration from their peers.”

The Learning Commons’ expansive, sociable open spaces encourage easy interaction and provide a platform for discussion and the exchange of ideas that today’s students need. Movable panels and furnishings accommodate purposes and groups of varying and changing sizes—for both the University and the community—creating an environment for collaboration (an important trend in both business and education).

Drs. Chris Speicher and Art Comstock who head Marywood’s innovative Entrepreneurship programs see in these spaces, for example, collaborative experiences between successful area business leaders and students eager to learn from real world contacts. The potential, much like space, is limitless!

God had begun the amazing process of creation with space. He paused after each stage, reviewing His work, evaluating its usefulness to humanity. He committed His entire universe, shaped from the boundless resource of space, to the benefit and service of humankind.

“And God saw everything that he had made, and behold it was very good.” (Genesis 1:31)

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