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Duke’s new wellness center looks grand. Thoughtful details attract students, even if they’re not sick

To a discerning eye, Duke Student Wellness Center’s exterior makes repeated, if subtle, references to the built environment around it.
To a discerning eye, Duke Student Wellness Center’s exterior makes repeated, if subtle, references to the built environment around it.

A sparkling new wellness center on Duke University’s West Campus may have been designed by Durham’s Duda/Paine Architects, but its inspiration came from the mother of Duke’s dean of students.

“(My mother) believed we have the ability and capacity to heal ourselves – that it’s a matter of focusing on our health and wellness, and not relying on medicine and a doctor,” says Sue Wasiolek, who also is Duke’s associate vice president for student affairs. “She exposed me to those concepts much earlier than most – she was way beyond her time and had great wisdom.”

When it came time to give architects their assignment, addressing student health and wellness was a key part of it.

“How do you build a building that will make people feel better the moment they walk in – to make them feel relaxed and calm?” she asked them.

The architects also faced the task of consolidating multiple medical and psychological services into one location.

Before the 71,000-square-foot Duke Student Wellness Center opened last year, student health care facilities had been scattered across campus.

“It couldn’t have been more disjointed, and in various corners of the university,” says Wasiolek, who has been at Duke for 40 years, as both student and administrator. “Regardless, the space where it was located was not inspirational – it didn’t make students feel better or want to feel better.”

No more. The new three-story wellness center with its attached one-story pharmacy is a light-filled affair that dispatches yesterday’s brick-and-mortar infirmary to the dustbin of history. Here we have a building that places emphasis on uplifting the student experience, from the most public to the most private spaces.

Level by level

Below grade, its open-plan wellness level is a gathering area that offers a visible connection to the earth. Through its entry doors and windows, students can see out to a tailored landscape for a feeling of well-being. Its second-level entrance grants access to general medical services and a clinic. The third level houses psychological services – with discretion and privacy.

“The layering organizes the building – and the views and the daylight are oriented the same way,” says Turan Duda, principal in the firm that bears his name. The firm also designed the Talley Student Union at N.C. State and the 17-story Dillon under construction in Raleigh’s Warehouse District.

“The darkest area is the most private, and the lightest is the most public,” Duda said.

Now, a student’s checkup with a doctor about a headache means there are three floors, and more, to address the issue – with mind, body, spirit and prevention.

“You can go to the meditation garden behind the building to deal with stress, without taking a pill,” Duda says. “That’s a novel idea, right?”

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A baby grand piano, strategically positioned at the second level entry hall of Duke Student Wellness Center, is a source of quiet etudes from the fingers of talented musicians who line up for a turn at the keys. Robert Benson

Its second-level entry, accessed by crossing a bridge from the sidewalk, is packed with understated drama. Visitors won’t find a registration desk or kiosk. Instead, there’s open space surrounded by graceful timber posts rising from the lower level and connecting stairways. A pair of glass doors leads to a light-filled living room, then the nurses’ station and doctors’ offices.

At night, it glows like a lantern, its supporting posts mimicking the trees of Duke Forest. But during the day, sunlight is the driver.

“The use of daylight is being recognized as increasingly important, particularly for wellness – with it at work, people get sick less and don’t go home as much,” says Duda. “We felt that both positioning how people enter the building – and the quality of daylight they experience – make them feel better, psychologically and physiologically.”

Natural light washes over the architects’ restrained selection of materials, creating constantly shifting shadows. Posts and beams are a warmly stained glulam timber. Wall panels and benches have been recycled from red and white oak harvested from the original site. Floors are Pennsylvania bluestone, with random insets of river-rock mosaics.

A baby grand piano, strategically positioned at the second level entry hall, is a source of quiet etudes from the fingers of talented musicians who line up for a turn at the keys.

“People think we schedule the piano playing with students,” Wasiolek says. “We’ve never scheduled anyone to play the piano at any time – it just happens.”

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The new, three-story Duke Student Wellness Center is a light-filled affair that dispatches yesterday’s brick-and-mortar infirmary to the dustbin of history. Here we have a building that places emphasis on uplifting the student experience, from the most public to the most private spaces. Robert Benson

Prime real estate

The wellness center is strategically located at the intersection of Towerview and Union drives and serves as connective tissue between athletic facilities, academia and dormitories. In essence, it’s at the center of student life, and its footprint addresses its place on campus sympathetically. The facade’s 10-degree step-back along Union Drive opens up to a hardscape and pathway that leads first to the pharmacy, then to Penn Pavilion and on to a plaza in front of the student union.

“The step-back breaks up the scale of monumental walls,” Duda says. “It’s also a way of not blocking or keeping you from seeing the next building on that path – it’s a way of being gracious.”

The building addresses each of its streets differently – and respects its neighbors. The Union Drive side of the center is about the transparency of the new, modern buildings around it.

But Towerview Drive is about Gothic Revival architecture – solid masonry walls and rhythmic window patterns. Here, the wellness center embraces the scale of those buildings. “It’s something we’re doing in a very sophisticated way, reinforced with mullions, window proportions and the structural expression of the glulam columns,” he says.

The center also looks up to Duke Chapel, designed by African-American architect Julian Abele in 1930.

“It’s aligned with Union Drive, and because of its orientation to the tower, we took advantage of that view,” Duda says. “I call it the bonus – it takes advantage of a coincidence and makes the coincidence purposeful.”

An expressive exterior

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Below grade, its open-plan wellness level is a gathering area that offers a visible connection to the earth. Through its entry doors and windows, students can see out to a tailored landscape for a feeling of well-being. Robert Benson

To a discerning eye, the wellness center’s exterior makes repeated, if subtle, references to the built environment around it. Horizontal bands of Italian terra cotta “baguettes,” 2-by-2 inches square, pick up warmer tones of Duke Stone. Vertical aluminum fins, painted pewter gray to reflect the stone’s darker colors, are spaced rhythmically to echo the apertures atop Duke Tower.

The glass cladding – none of it reflective and all of it selected to minimize heat gain – was silkscreen-fritted in horizontal bands, also to deal effectively with the sun. And it has a second function – to provide framed and focused views of the chapel and forest to the north.

All of these features add up to truly grand architecture, to be sure. But what makes this building so successful is its sensitive response to the human condition – something that’s led to huge popularity with Duke students. “They come here even if they’re not sick,” Duda says.

Next to the library, it’s the most favored space on campus – a place to study, to hang out, to meditate and to practice yoga.

“The public spaces do not scream: ‘Health Care Services,’ ” says Wasiolek. “They whisper: ‘Now is the time to take care of yourself, to relax and devote your energy to getting better.’ 

That would be enough to make anyone’s mother proud.

Editor’s note: Stewart in Raleigh was part of the landscape architecture, civil engineering and structural engineering team for the Wellness Center. Individual members included Michael Batts, project manager; Matthew Evans, project designer; and David Boyette, civil engineer.

J. Michael Welton writes about architecture, art and design for national and international publications, and edits a digital design magazine at architectsandartisans.com. He is the author of “Drawing from Practice: Architects and the Meaning of Freehand” (Routledge: 2015). He can be reached at mike@architectsandartisans.com.

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