Siebel Center for Design
Project site: Not previously developed
Building program type(s): Education - college/university (campus-level)
A place to learn design thinking through experimentation, prototyping, and making, the Siebel Design Center at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign is the only ground-up, interdisciplinary design center of its kind in the country. The LEED Gold-certified facility offers the spaces and tools that directly respond to the shifting nature of higher education and the university’s desire to recruit the next generation of creative visionaries.
The project is guided by a campus master plan that called for a four-story building as a formal terminus to its Military Axis, but the team saw an opportunity for a low, two-story structure where program areas could be adjacent to one another to maximize collaboration and visual connection. Its lower level is underground to maintain an appropriate scale while still revealing a highly transparent pavilion in the campus landscape that allows the project to realize significant performance energy goals.
To support a new program with evolving requirements, the team shaped a mix of fixed collaborative and technical spaces while still ensuring a high level of flexibility. With no direct ties to any of the university’s academic departments, the center also needed to welcome students with differing levels of comfort in applying design thinking to their work.
"It was a bold move to locate this project and the very end of the university’s campus, but its ability for students and visitors to be slowly immersed into the building and encouraged is particularly evident." - Jury Comment
A light-filled gallery creates a welcoming experience upon arrival, which encourages gradual immersion into the center’s offerings. A maple plywood ceiling running from the entrance to the building’s east terrace works in concert with maple flooring to create a warm atmosphere. Sitting below large skylights, a sloping pathway functions much like a crossroads between the center’s shared spaces and its learning environments while also reinforcing the university’s commitment to accessibility across its campus.
Throughout, the center’s spaces for individual students or small groups meet the campus-wide need for flexible and hackable environments. On any given day, the center could host a class on designing for social impact or training for the shop space’s waterjet cutter. It’s not uncommon to find English and engineering majors sharing ideas, exploring concepts on moveable whiteboards, or rearranging the center’s furniture in order to rehearse a presentation.
Additionally, while the campus’ Military Axis offered ample green space, its overwhelming scale and lack of connections to surrounding buildings left it underused. The center’s east terrace now engages the green directly, providing an outdoor gathering space that attracts students in warmer months. A new grove of birch trees and a meandering pathway that leads to the building’s south is a departure from earlier models that focused on more traditional, uniform lawns.
Since opening in 2021, the center has quickly become a campus destination in both expected and unexpected ways. Students and faculty learning to use the center for the first time reported positive experiences as they access technology that encourages brainstorming, iteration, and the birth of new ideas.