Traditional Building Portfolio
Palladio Awards

Project: The William H. and Elizabeth Gray Danforth University Center, Washington University in St. Louis, St. Louis, MO

Architect: Tsoi/Kobus & Associates, Inc., Cambridge, MA; Richard Kobus, FAIA, FACHA, principal in charge; David Owens, AIA, design principal; Rick Powers, project manager; Erik Mollo-Christensen, AIA, managing principal; Chu Foxlin, AIA, IIDA, LEED AP, interior architect; Susie Festel, interior designer; Nicholas Koulbanis, AIA, LEED AP, project coordinator




New Design & Construction – more than 30,000 sq.ft.

Winner: Tsoi/Kobus & Associates, Inc.

Western Expansion

By Will Holloway

The city of St. Louis’ transformation into the “Gateway to the West” began in the early 19th century. In 1803, when Robert Livingston orchestrated the Louisiana Purchase, little was known about the vast territory west of the Mississippi River that included present-day Missouri, Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, Arkansas and Iowa and parts of North and South Dakota, Minnesota, Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico and Louisiana. To explore and map the approximately 900,000-sq.mi area, President Thomas Jefferson enlisted Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, who officially set out in May 1804 at the confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri rivers, just north of St. Louis. A few decades later, migrants would begin setting out in droves from the St. Louis area to settle the western territories. Today, the city’s most iconic structure, Eero Saarinen’s Gateway Arch (1965), commands the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, a downtown park commemorating the westward expansion of the U.S.

At the turn of the 20th century, around the time St. Louis was chosen to host the 1904 World’s Fair, Cope & Stewardson won a competition to design a new campus a few miles west of downtown for Washington University. Working in the ubiquitous Collegiate Gothic style of the era, the Philadelphia firm laid out the campus on an east/west axis; Brookings Hall, the campus’ most iconic building, was completed in 1902 and utilized for the World’s Fair.

In 2005, Cambridge, MA-based Tsoi/Kobus & Associates was hired by the university to design a new university center that would follow the precedents set forth a century before by Cope & Stewardson. From the beginning of the process, Washington University made a clear commitment to honoring the Collegiate Gothic tradition of the 169-acre campus. David Owens, the design principal for Tsoi/Kobus, says that when he first saw the site 13-14 years ago (Tsoi/Kobus previously designed the university’s Earth and Planetary Science Building), he was struck by the “interesting juxtaposition of the different notions that were going on with the campus.”

“The campus is designed in the Elizabethan, or Jacobean, style, which was transitioning the Gothic into the Classical,” says Owens. “In some ways it has its foot in both camps – the aristocracy was very much enamored with the Classical, but the building trades were still locked into the Gothic because that is what they knew.

“The campus was laid out on an east/west axis – likely making a nod to western expansion. Most of the buildings are elongated rectangles, following the axis and creating a consistent rhythm of forms. Going through the campus, I was pleasantly struck by the humane scale of the place, and how, in a number of instances, the different buildings were of roughly same size as the spaces they created. The campus is unified in its style, scale and mood, so we felt that to do something foreign would have been inappropriate.”

Richard Kobus, Tsoi/Kobus principal in charge, says that along with creating a front door to the campus, particular emphasis was placed on creating a university center – not a student center. “Washington University wanted to create an environment that encouraged the traditions on the campus,” says Kobus. “The school has a highly interactive faculty, so they wanted the faculty to feel like they have a place in the building. They also wanted alumni to feel at home in the university center, and of course they wanted the students to have a home there. A number of the programs are keyed toward students – student government, student activities, community service, Greek life, student media and career services offices are in the building in combination with the traditional food services and some entertainment aspects. There is a formal lounge along with some less formal spaces, and there are all sorts of informal spaces for people to sit and gather.”

Today, the Danforth University Center stands on the south side of the school’s Danforth Campus, along Forsyth Avenue. The 116,000-sq.ft., three-story structure, which rises atop a parking garage designed by another firm, is comprised of three main east/west sections – or bars – linked by two north/south volumes. The exterior stonework is Missouri red granite with Indiana limestone accents (from Bloomington, IN-based Bybee Stone) and the roof is finished in slate from the Rising & Nelson Slate Co. of Middle Granville, NY. “It’s almost like three independent manor houses attached in the middle,” says Owens. “The bars are stretched east/west, and the spaces created between them are also stretched east/west. This approach allowed us to break down the scale of the building without compromising efficiency.” The layout also creates three courtyards – outdoor gathering spaces that expand and diversify the building’s usage. In the interior, the variety of spaces on the first floor include a café, restaurant, a formal dining area, offices, a large dining hall and The Commons – the heart of the building. The second floor includes a classroom, meeting rooms and a large formal lounge; the graduate and communications centers occupy the third floor.

“We extended the materials and the detailing into the building itself, so that the interior is an almost transitional approach of traditional materials, details and traditional coloration, with more dynamic forms and expressions,” says Kobus. “I think the university has really enjoyed the approach that we have taken to both materials and color in the buildings that we’ve done for them.”

“Many times, the interiors of these buildings are bare-boned,” says Owens. “But in this case the client moved away from that. In The Commons, we saw the opportunity to express the Classical aspects of the design. Almost everything inside is built off of Classical details, but then it uses deep Victorian colors seen mostly in the churches of New England, especially with the works of Richardson. There is so little color on campus that I was determined to get them to saturate their palate, and happily the idea resonated with them.”

Owens also notes that the design principles of the Picturesque were important to the design process. “This approach meant working along a path, setting up a vista and drawing people’s attention to the vista, and then leading them from there to another vista. It’s not a Modernist approach, where you design an object and the object is pure and it’s freestanding. This is really about the person who is walking through the space. The building doesn’t unfold as one idea – it’s always a series of ideas.”

From the beginning, Tsoi/ Kobus and Washington University made a commitment to sustainable design – culminating in a LEED gold rating for the building. “Promoting sustainability on campus was an important project goal,” says Rick Powers, project manager with Tsoi/Kobus. “We began with the intent to achieve a silver rating, but during construction it became clear that gold was within reach. We went back and re-evaluated some of the things that we were doing, such as the lighting. We also added a significant rainwater collection below one of the courtyards – this was not part of the original design, but was added to achieve LEED gold.”

While not a LEED item, Powers and Owens note that the most sustainable attribute of the building is that it’s built to last well into the future. “We had a great client that understands how to build substantially – that is, to build well for the long term” says Owens. “This means using only high-quality, long-lasting materials. The university center is a simple masonry box – there is no interweaving of different modern building technologies in this building. There is no steel in it. It is a time-proven method of masonry construction. In order for a building to last 200 years, however, you need to do more than follow the program – it has to be adaptable to new future uses as well.”

“Building for the long term, by nature, is a very sustainable approach,” says Powers. “Besides having a masonry building that lasts for a long time, a flexible building is an equally sustainable building that allows future inhabitants to adapt the building. The core of the building is easily adaptable if there are changes that need to be made for future use.”

“For us as a firm, this project has been immensely satisfying,” says Kobus. “For me personally, to see the building being used the way it’s being used is a lot of fun. My daughter is a senior at Washington University and gives me regular feedback – people really do love the building – and she’s proud to let people know that her father’s firm designed the building. As soon as the building opened, she called me and said, ‘It’s crowded, and classes haven’t even begun!’”

Jill Carnaghi, associate vice chancellor for students/dean of Campus Life at the university, has an office on the first floor of the Danforth Center. She is quick to respond when asked about the new building. “We love it!” she says. “We have gorgeous buildings on campus, but we’ve been lacking a living room – a comfortable space where faculty, staff, students, friends, alumni, parents and the St. Louis community can come and gather. This building has helped centralize a lot of events and activities on campus.

“Guests from other institutions say things like, ‘This is what a university center should look like,’ and young alums come back and say such as, ‘I can’t believe we didn’t have this when we were here.’ It’s been overwhelmingly positive, and I think part of this is that Tsoi/Kobus stuck with Cope & Stewardson – even down to how the building frames outdoor spaces. David Owens probably understands Collegiate Gothic better than just about anyone.”

“What we tried to do was create a home,” says Owens. “This is a student’s first home away from home. I would like to think the kids really enjoy it – it gives them a variety of spaces to bond to. The Commons, the dining area and the different scaled courtyards – it all acts as a good representative for a home base within the university. It is of the university, yet students can go there and feel at home.  



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