The Sullivan Family Student Center at the College of Education at the University of Wyoming, in Laramie, was masterfully rehab'd by NYC architecture firm Lewis.Tsurumaki.Lewis and just recently featured in Interior Design. So enchanted was Curbed correspondent Sarah F. Cox with the nifty new space, with its modernist bamboo screens and original artwork, that she immediately called up principal Paul Lewis for a chat. LTL’s offices are located in an outfitted factory building on 29th Street in NYC, with their own metal and wood shops in the back.
Photos: Michael Moran
We mostly know your work from restaurants, hotels, and cultural buildings, where the challenge is to build something that draws in the consumer. How was the approach different for this student center?
We actually don’t distinguish in the office between projects that are for hospitality or for university. The common thesis to our work is that it is inherently public; our focus is on the way architecture intersects with the public, engages it, advances it, and increases the amount of socialization. In a weird way we’ve done restaurants because they were somewhere between an installation—restaurants tend to be temporary—and a social collector.. We did a number of restaurants around 2006 but haven’t done that many since because we were worried we would get pigeonholed by our own success.
Curbed: What did the Sullivan Center look like before you began designing for it? See before photo, above.
The building had been recently renovated in-house by the University; they converted it from a shop building full of industrial equipment. All the attention went into the classrooms around the periphery. What was left over were these public spaces in the middle with no articulation; they were the residue of this renovation.
And so you guys decided to wrap the whole thing with screens?
We used perforated bamboo to create the screen that separates circulation from the main area. What’s great about the bamboo plywood is that it's made up of hundreds of thousands of strips; there’s that sense of an accumulation of things producing surfaces. We generated the pattern cut into it with a computer program—it’s a Grasshopper script. We wanted the amount of porosity to be even throughout: about 40 percent open. In the script we specified that the pattern would not repeat, there would be even density, and we had to locate positions for the brackets. Every single panel is unique. The real trick was to get a series of apertures that scaled so that from far away it looks like a solid pattern but as you get closer it creates a series of vignettes.
What was the reason for your “no repeats” philosophy? Wouldn’t it have been easier to just design a few panels? Would anyone be able to tell?
The pragmatic answer would be that repeating or not repeating was the same in terms of the cost. But we also wanted to get a coherence of the whole We knew that the panels themselves would break things down, so in a sense we were fighting that problem. We wanted the pattern to produce a field so that you did not have a sense of a zone that repeats. Also we had done the wall covering, which is all about repeats and how you hide the repeat.
You even designed the wallpaper?
It’s a pattern we made by drawing seven lines in pencil going from light to dark and repeating them digitally to make an entire surface. We designed it with Knoll back in 2005 and we used it in this building to cover the dry wall and CMU (Concrete Masonry Units).
And in addition to that you created original art for the building?
During the renovation, that double-height wall was always going to be reserved for an artist. But for the design of the space the bamboo screen was the critical component. It was a struggle to figure out what to do with this wall. A number of artists were contacted to produce work for this wall but declined; they felt that there was already so much going on in the design. In a way we set up this scenario where we’d already done too much. So the idea became for us to complete this wall as part of the total work of architecture.
So no one wanted to compete with you and you won. Tell us about the concept for that giant wall.
It’s a topographic map of Wyoming on its side so that north in the building is also north on the map. This means that west would be up so that as the sun sets in the skylight it sets in the west on the map. The idea for the topographic map was that when people came in, we wanted them to not immediately know what they were looking at. We did a rendering of the topography in the space to see if was recognizable as a figure. We knew that people would recognize the Bighorn Mountains and the Grand Tetons but when you turn them 90 degrees, people wouldn’t quite know what the were looking at. The wall is both abstract and it has intense, incredible detail. It was great because during the opening people were pointing at it and saying, "Oh, my cabin is over here and I go fishing over there."
How did you make sure this installation and the screens don't compete?
We went through a couple of different proposals but we knew it had to be a fairly neutral surface...meaning white. It also needed to be something monolithic [and we] wanted it to be a tool relevant to the mission of the college of education, which is about people being curious about their environments.
How did you put the whole thing together?
It was made in Brooklyn by a firm called Tietz Baccon. We edited contour files that we got from the Geology Department at the University of Wyoming, and then sent them to Tietz-Baccon. They then carefully translated the contours into surfaces and spent over a month milling these panels. We’d planned for 1/8-inch joints between each panel and our intention was to caulk the joints and paint the whole thing, but when we looked at it we thought the joints added to the cartography so we left them.
So really the space is used for the same purpose as before; it’s still the open part between classrooms. The functions are the same but you’ve made it so that people actually want to be in it.
Exactly. It was programmatically a very straightforward project.