Creating A Campus Center

Surrounded by hills, orchards, and farm fields, Southwestern Michigan College (SMC) might be easily dismissed as just a simple community college, but the administration is working hard to change that misconception.

A view of the Alumni Plaza at Southwestern Michigan College.

Founded in 1964, SMC provides associate degrees in Arts, Science, and Applied Science, and bachelor’s degrees in conjunction with its partnered colleges. There has been a significant increase in enrollment in the last few years, and campus housing was added to accommodate the widening draw of students from outside the local area.

The campus amenities strive to keep up with the increasing needs of the diverse student body.

The Concept

For almost 10 years, the board of trustees has expressed a desire for a clock tower to be the centerpiece of the college and visible from the perimeter of the campus.

Previous studies focused on the tower design; how students would interact with this structure had not been fully addressed. The resulting plan was a fairly generic, paved space surrounding a solid-based tower.

The design team saw a unique opportunity to integrate the clock tower and enhance the students’ campus experience. Creating a vibrant, comfortable space to serve as a focal point for the campus became the goal.

With SMC’s mission of “knowledge for all” as a catalyst, the concept of a dynamic center that ripples outward–like a pebble thrown in water–was developed.

The radial “ripples” at the plaza are accentuated through the use of materials and grade changes. New bands of trees and landscape beds expand the ripples farther through the central quadrangle, creating a continuation of the concept while also providing shade, color, and texture.

The resulting design–the Alumni Plaza–was constructed in the summer of 2011. The tower construction will follow, so it was important that the plaza had its own synergy.

Bringing People Together

The space provides students, faculty, and administration a multiple-use, flexible area that continues to build the college’s identity and draw people together. The plaza has created a public destination space within the campus, whether for planned activities or simply to meet up with someone.

Set between the library, the College Services Center, and two academic buildings, the space is central to the students and faculty, and most will pass through it several times a day.

The lower plaza provides ample room for those gathering there or for those moving through it, even at its narrowest width of 18 feet.

From a distance, the banners rise well above the berms and serve as beacons, encouraging people to explore the space.

Impromptu seating for conversations, studying, waiting for others, or just relaxing is encouraged by the radial cast-stone seat walls that envelop the plaza.

Steps rise to the performance area of the plaza and provide a space for students to informally gather on multiple levels. There is room for tables and chairs for more formal events.

Grass berms embrace the plaza and provide another choice for seating, lying down to enjoy the sun, chatting with friends, or viewing a performance.

Alumni are recognized not only by the plaza name, but also through the multitude of donor opportunities available. Engraved pavers and limestone represent a community connection and a sense of permanence.

Students using the plaza will become part of a group bound together by shared experiences, and those connections will serve them into the future.

The Design Details

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