With its mission to catalyze positive social change, the Arcus Center is an unprecedented example of how architecture can involve in the search of justice for all
Historically, convening for social justice has taken place in the most informal settings, with many of this nation’s most important civil rights gatherings, for example, taking place in a church basement, a living room, or even around a kitchen table. The challenge of designing a building from the ground up that fosters discussion and renders this work visible and welcome to all is in many ways unprecedented. The Arcus Center for Social Justice Leadership aims to bring social justice topics up from the basement and squarely into public consciousness.
With its mission to catalyze positive social change, the Arcus Center works to develop emerging leaders and engage existing leaders in the fields of human rights and social justice. As a study center and meeting space, the building brings together students, faculty, visiting scholars, social justice leaders, and members of the public for conversation and activities aimed at creating a more just world.
The Center’s architecture supports this work in several important ways. Inside, the building’s visually open and day-lit interior is designed to encourage “convening” in configurations that begin to break down psychological and cultural barriers between people and help facilitate understanding. The presence of a living room, hearth, and kitchen for sharing food at the center of the building creates the potential for frequent informal meetings and casual or chance encounters.
Many decisions that architects must make about space—addressing, for instance, issues of accessibility or gender identification—have social justice repercussions. The integration of equitable practices directly into its design enables the Center to instigate positive social transformation at every scale. The building is likewise designed to respond sensitively to its distinct yet adjacent physical contexts: a residential neighborhood, the college campus, and a native woodland grove. Its tri-axial plan addresses and unites all three contexts with large transparent facades connected by concavely inflected arcing walls that embrace the interior space.
For the Center’s wood masonry exterior, a local but forgotten building technique was revived and brought into the 21st century. The wood sequesters carbon and provides a low-tech approach to achieving a high-performance building facade. The stacked wood material also works as a figurative extension of the trees in the adjacent grove landscape. This unique exterior challenges the Georgian brick language and plantation-style architecture of the campus’s existing buildings, while simultaneously honoring the masonry craft and those who constructed the college’s earlier structures.
Informed by the tenet that in a socially just world each person’s life is valued and their inherent dignity is recognized, the Arcus Center demonstrates that spaces for convening can and should be some of our most powerful.