UM Architects Reimagine Outdoor Courtyard for Classes and Social Distancing

. October 7, 2020.
University of Michigan Art and Architecture Building
The tables fit together to provide clover-shaped work spaces at the Art and Architecture Building’s inner courtyard. Photo by Eric Bronson, Michigan Photography.

UM architects reimagine an outdoor courtyard with a table for 12, allowing six feet distance among courtyard visitors.

The courtyard of the Arts and Architecture Building has always been a place for socializing, studying, and meeting as a class. Unfortunately, the space hasn’t been able to be used this way because of COVID until recently. A few clever UM architects have taken it upon themselves to reimagine the space in a socially distant way.

A group of faculty and students have recently created an outdoor, socially distanced instructional space to activate the inner courtyard of the Art and Architecture building. The goal was to allow the university community to safely utilize the popular space by intuitively adhering to health and safety guidelines required by the pandemic.

“The social distancing challenges of the pandemic are amplified in design education, which relies heavily on collaborative, spontaneous and interactive exchanges in studio and classroom environments,” said Anya Sirota, associate dean for academic initiatives and associate professor. “One response to this dilemma was to harness our own disciplinary expertise to create a more engaging, empathetic spatial experience, which despite some very real constraints, rings true to our collective culture.”

Sirota, along with other Taubman College faculty and staff including Jonathan Rule (assistant professor of practice), Ana Morcillo Pallarés (assistant professor), Jacob Comerci (academic innovation program manager), and Ishan Pal (research assistant) co-designed two large, health-informed work tables. Each table will accommodate up to 12 people and adhere to health and safety guidelines. 

Students Gary Zhang, Adrian DiCorato, and Kristina Cantarero assisted with the fabrication of the tables. Taubman College’s Digital Fabrication Lab and woodshop provided additional support.

The tables move to form symmetrical clovers but can be disassembled into medium-sized ovals and individual fragments. There are also several umbrellas placed throughout for shade. When the space is not occupied by a class, the students, faculty, and staff can use the adaptable furnishing for informal, socially distanced gatherings.

The Taubman College faculty has also designed a “cabana” for the undercroft of the Art and Architecture building, which will hold additional outdoor furnishings: umbrellas, lawn chairs, and inflatables. Students are free to bring these items to the adjacent hill, or “the beach” as it has been affectionately named, to use during study and conversation. A cleaning station is available to ensure safety as well.

“The table will be useful now, and it will be useful a year from now — it’s not a pandemic-specific artifact. That said, social distancing guidelines acted as a productive constraint, inflecting our design decisions,” Comerci said. “When the table is reconfigured, it will allow us to get nearer; when aggregated, the table’s scale and geometry intuitively inform us how to stay safe while being together. The outcome is informal, economical and droll.”

The courtyard can be booked for class use by faculty or students in the Taubman College and the Stamps School through October 29.

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