Kalamazoo, Michigan


There is a common thread that runs through all of Studio Gang’s work. Each project—whether an 82-story tower, a small open-air pavilion, or the design of a museum exhibition—begins with research into materiality and structure and an emphasis on sustainability; and each results in completely novel and visually striking forms. It is no surprise, then, that the Chicago-based firm led by Jeanne Gang, which has nearly doubled in size over the last couple of years, has taken on those same challenges and aspirations for its latest project. A building without any real precedent, the Arcus Center for Social Justice Leadership creates a new archetype and brings both the pursuit of human rights and a centuries-old, but little-known construction method to the fore.

An initiative of Kalamazoo College made possible by billionaire alumnus and activist Jon Stryker, the Arcus Center is located at the northwest corner of the small liberal arts school’s campus in Kalamazoo, Michigan, and borders the city’s West Main Hill Historic District. Its position at the highest point of the campus, overlooking a dense grove of trees, is a prized one; the college president’s house once stood there but was moved to an unoccupied lot across the street, beside similarly impressive single-family residences, to make room for the new building.

The site also inspired the one-story structure’s dynamic form. Taking the shape of a pair of boomerangs facing outward and joined together along one wing, its three low, arcing walls culminate in three large rectangular windows facing onto the residential neighborhood to the north, the forested area to the south, and the college’s 20 or so other main buildings downhill to the east. “There’s no secret about what goes on inside,” says design principal Todd Zima. “The openings figuratively and literally engage the community.”

The walls themselves are difficult to decipher. From a distance, their unusual color and texture look almost like a snake’s skin—and, on one side, a snake that has swallowed a very large rodent. That wall, which cantilevers over the sloping ground beneath, bulges at its center to accommodate an eyelet window for a conference room. The opening is an awkward sliver, however, since the walls are so massive. Nearly 2 feet thick, they are composed of 11-inch-long white cedar logs laid crosswise, in a building technique known as cordwood masonry (RECORD, July 2014, page 134), and backed by an air cavity, insulation, and a traditional stud wall. Windows are handled more gracefully on the rest of the wall and the facade to the west—their small, metal-trimmed, circular openings are crisp highlights among the similarly sized log faces. Though the Y-shaped form results in a building with no obvious back or front, the wall that frames the main entrance is the least successful, making it look instead like a service entry. Kept close to the ground, to echo the residential scale of the area it faces, and punctured only with standard entry doors, it is actually too low, dwarfed by the stately homes around it.

The building’s less than grand appearance may also have something to do with the choice of construction. Cordwood masonry is low-tech, cost-effective, environmentally sound, and it provides good thermal value, but it lacks the refinement of traditional masonry. Though there are a few examples of its use in larger houses, including one for Willie Nelson, it is popular among back-to-nature, do-it-yourselfers to build small guest houses, barns, and outdoor saunas. The technique is similar to that for constructing a brick wall. But while a typical brick wall features less than 20 percent mortar, Arcus’s walls feature up to 40 percent, with mortar joints as wide as 4 inches in many spots—an inevitable outcome, given the irregularity of the logs, whose diameters range from 4 to 14 inches. That much exposed mortar makes cracks and gaps created by log shrinkage more visible. When you take DIY construction and elevate it to the level of architecture with a capital A, those aesthetic and technical flaws cannot be overlooked.

The interior is less hippie chic and more 60s Mod, and the contrast is a bit jarring. All curves and no right angles, the nexus of the 10,000-square-foot open space—which includes a central kitchen, several offices, cozy nooks, and all-gender bathrooms that required city approval—is a sunken seating area with a fireplace. The building’s unique program, to support the act of convening in different configurations, “begged us to explore buildings we don’t tend to talk about in architectural history courses,” explains Gang. Inspired by Shaker meeting houses, Indian stepwells, and Native American and Oceanic structures, the non-hierarchical interior, accented by earthy colors, accommodates intimate classes and workshops as easily as large conferences attended by hundreds. Though ceilings are as high as 18 feet and feature expansive clerestories, there is a domestic feel to the space. And while the tricky topography was handled masterfully by creating fully accessible ramps for informal amphitheaters, both outdoors and inside, the strong horizontality of the plan gives the building a Prairie-style quality generally associated with flatter Midwestern landscapes.

Studio Gang’s biggest achievement at Arcus was crafting a truly welcoming space. Despite the shortcomings of the facade, the building’s openness and grass-roots quality, coupled with the warm interiors, speak loudly to the center’s mission of creating a more just and inclusive world.


Kalamazoo College

Studio Gang Architects

1212 N. ASHLAND AVE. STE 212
773 384 1212

77 Water Street, 5th Floor
NEW YORK, NY 10005
212 579 1514

Personnel in architect's firm who should receive special credit:
Jeanne Gang, FAIA
Founder and Design Principal

Mark Schendel, AIA
Managing Principal

Todd Zima, RA
Design Principal, Project Architect

Margaret Cavenagh, RA
Interiors Director

Claire Halpin, RA
Senior Project Leader

with John Castro, Juan de la Mora, Ana Flor Ortiz (RA), Jay Hoffman, Wei-Ju Lai, Lindsey Moyer, Jeana Ripple, Schuyler Smith, Rolf Temesvari, John Wolters

Architect and Architect of Record:
Studio Gang Architects

Structural Engineer:
Thornton Tomasetti
Joe Burns, David Weihing, Matthew Huizinga

Landscape Architect and Civil Engineer:
Viridis Design Group
Timothy Britain, John McCann

MEP and Fire Protection Engineer:
Diekema Hamann Engineering
Jon Mulder, Phil Nicholson, Mike Townsend, Marty Morgan

Wood Masonry Consultant:
Earthwood Building School
Rob Roy, Jaki Roy

Mechanical Concept Design:
Sachin Anand

Filament33, Inc.
Marianne Maloney

Cost Estimator:
Davis Langdon
Seamus Fennessy

Construction Manager:
Miller-Davis Company
Michele Wreggelsworth, Rob Morris, Steve Zimmerman, Craig Howard, Rex Bell

Steve Hall ' Hedrich Blessing


10,000 square feet

Construction cost:

$5.2 million

Completion date:

September 2014



Structural system
Steel frame

Manufacturer of any structural components unique to this project:
Specialty Steel Shapes - Chicago Rolled Metal, Chicago, IL
Custom Exterior Stud Framing - FC&A, Allegian, MI

Exterior cladding
Custom White Cedar wood masonry:
Material and installation training: Earthwood Building School, West Chazy, NY
White Cedar material harvested by Town & Country Cedar Homes, Petoskey, MI
White Cedar log ends prepared and sorted by Miller-Davis Company, Kalamazoo, MI
Wood Masonry walls installed by BB Masonry, Kalamazoo, MI

Metal/glass curtain wall:
Vista Wall (CW250 1 Inch Curtain Wall System)
OldCastle (Reliance TC Curtain Wall System)

See wood masonry above

Moisture barrier:
Foundation Waterproofing: Carlisle (Barricoat-S spray applied waterproofing system)
Exterior Wall Waterproofing: Dow (Thermax System)

Other cladding unique to this project:
See wood masonry above

Firestone (Ultra-Ply TPO Membrane)

Firestone Metal Copings, custom fabrication

Exterior Plaster Ceilings: Sto Corp

Metal frame:
Custom-fabricated round windows - FC&A, Allegian, MI

Flat IGU: Thompson IG
Bent IGU: Standard Bent Glass
Bird-Safe Glass: Custom Ceramic Frit on Thompson IG

Old Castle Building Envelope (Series 3000)

Metal doors:
La Force

Wood doors:
Algoma Hardwoods



Exit devices:
Von Duprin


Other special hardware:
Folger Adams (Electric Strikes)
NGP (Door Accessories)

Interior finishes
Acoustical ceilings:
Rulon International (Wood Slat Ceiling)

Cabinetwork and custom woodwork:
Superior Wood Products, Inc., Grand Rapids, MI

Paints and stains:
Interior and Exterior Steel Paint System: Tnemec, Inc.
Interior Paint: Benjamin Moore

Wall coverings:
Wood Wall Covering: SR Wood
Felt Wall Covering: Filzfelt
Cork Wall Covering: Capri Cork

Plastic laminate:
Formica Colorcore

Solid surfacing:
DuPont Corian

Floor and wall tile:
Daltile (WC Walls, Shower Walls & Floor)


Hunter Douglas Motorized Roller Shades

Special interior finishes unique to this project:
Custom Fireplace and Flue: FC&A, Allegian, MI
Custom Air Supply Wall Grilles: Superior Wood Products, Inc., Grand Rapids, MI

Office furniture:



Other furniture:
Landscape Forms: Site Furnishings

Focal Point
Winona Lighting
3G Lighting

Indirect Lighting and Wall Sconces:

Task lighting:

Philips Color Kinetics
Ligman Lighting USA
Vista Professional Outdoor Lighting

Dimming System or other lighting controls:
LC&D Lighting Controls

Water Fountains: Elkay
Kitchen and Utility Sinks: Elkay
Kitchen and Utility Faucets: Grohe
Lavatories: Kohler
Lavatory Faucets: Toto Helix Ecopower
Toilets: American Standard
Flush Valves: Sloan Ecos Electronic Dual-Flush

Energy management or building automation system:
By Owner

Other unique products that contribute to sustainability:
Under-floor radiant and air delivery system: Airfloor
Geothermal Well Field and System: Midwest Geothermal
Porous Concrete Mix Design: Consumers Concrete