Creating A Campus Center

Surrounded by hills, orchards, and farm fields, Southwestern Michigan College (SMC) might be easily dismissed as just a simple community college, but the administration is working hard to change that misconception.

Founded in 1964, SMC provides associate degrees in Arts, Science, and Applied Science, and bachelor’s degrees in conjunction with its partnered colleges. There has been a significant increase in enrollment in the last few years, and campus housing was added to accommodate the widening draw of students from outside the local area.

The campus amenities strive to keep up with the increasing needs of the diverse student body.

The Concept

For almost 10 years, the board of trustees has expressed a desire for a clock tower to be the centerpiece of the college and visible from the perimeter of the campus.

Previous studies focused on the tower design; how students would interact with this structure had not been fully addressed. The resulting plan was a fairly generic, paved space surrounding a solid-based tower.

The design team saw a unique opportunity to integrate the clock tower and enhance the students’ campus experience. Creating a vibrant, comfortable space to serve as a focal point for the campus became the goal.

With SMC’s mission of “knowledge for all” as a catalyst, the concept of a dynamic center that ripples outward--like a pebble thrown in water--was developed.

The radial “ripples” at the plaza are accentuated through the use of materials and grade changes. New bands of trees and landscape beds expand the ripples farther through the central quadrangle, creating a continuation of the concept while also providing shade, color, and texture.

The resulting design--the Alumni Plaza--was constructed in the summer of 2011. The tower construction will follow, so it was important that the plaza had its own synergy.

Bringing People Together

The space provides students, faculty, and administration a multiple-use, flexible area that continues to build the college’s identity and draw people together. The plaza has created a public destination space within the campus, whether for planned activities or simply to meet up with someone.

Set between the library, the College Services Center, and two academic buildings, the space is central to the students and faculty, and most will pass through it several times a day.

The lower plaza provides ample room for those gathering there or for those moving through it, even at its narrowest width of 18 feet.

From a distance, the banners rise well above the berms and serve as beacons, encouraging people to explore the space.

Impromptu seating for conversations, studying, waiting for others, or just relaxing is encouraged by the radial cast-stone seat walls that envelop the plaza.

Steps rise to the performance area of the plaza and provide a space for students to informally gather on multiple levels. There is room for tables and chairs for more formal events.

Grass berms embrace the plaza and provide another choice for seating, lying down to enjoy the sun, chatting with friends, or viewing a performance.

Alumni are recognized not only by the plaza name, but also through the multitude of donor opportunities available. Engraved pavers and limestone represent a community connection and a sense of permanence.

Students using the plaza will become part of a group bound together by shared experiences, and those connections will serve them into the future.

The Design Details

The first of two phases, the Alumni Plaza is set over the 36-foot-wide, 5-foot-deep reinforced concrete foundation for the future 84-foot-tall clock tower.

The tower footprint will be 14 feet x 14 feet with an open base to minimize visual obstruction and to encourage people to move around it. The tower base also provides an area for specialized activities, such as a green room for performances.

The generous 100-foot diameter circular plaza is scaled to accommodate the tower and allow maintenance vehicles to move through the area, but the amenities and changes of vertical scale keep the space pedestrian-friendly.

The area was raised approximately 2 feet to bring the plaza out of a natural bowl to its more prominent level. Full advantage was taken of the natural southern slope of the quadrangle. Steps on the southern side rise gently to provide a platform for activities and performances, while the north side of the upper plaza is flush to accommodate universal accessibility.

The upper plaza features were planned to ensure minimal disruption during the future tower construction.

Fifteen-foot-tall colorful banners add vibrancy and vertical scale to the space. The banner designs emphasize the college’s amenities and goals with graphic silhouettes and graduated bright colors.

Once the clock tower is in place, the banners will also provide a visual anchor and augment the pedestrian scale of the space.

Cast-stone steps wrap the upper plaza and tie into grade as it rises to the north. The distinct change of color and material emphasize this transition so pedestrians will recognize the stairs as they taper to flush.

There is a natural flow to the steps due to the 4-inch rise and 20-inch-wide tread. This combination avoids the awkward stilted-step sequence often found in plaza stair features. The generous width also allows students to walk side by side comfortably without feeling perched.

The creation of full-scale mockups allowed the designers to test the comfort and appearance of the steps and seat walls, and for the college to clearly understand what was being proposed.

3-D computer visualization and rendering were also employed; this was critical in studying such a significant space. Utilizing these design tools ensured that the installation looked exactly as the college expected and the designed components functioned well.

The curved cast-stone seat wall is elegantly simple, maintaining a monolithic appearance with a single, continuous recessed shadowline to draw the eye along the plaza.

The corner design is pushed inward and acts “hinge-like” to allow all of the acute wall junctions to appear visually the same, even though each is slightly different.

The choice of cast-stone material allows for this type of detailing and a smoother, more-refined finished product than precast concrete.

The walls are punctuated with recessed LED lights at the corners and every six linear feet, giving the plaza a distinct personality at night.

The seat height of 19 inches is comfortable for most users, and the generous 3-inch radius edge creates a “softer” appearance that also discourages the use of skateboards.

The solid-color clay pavers are set in a radial pattern, accentuated with bands of multi-colored, narrow boardwalk pavers. The use of standard Holland pavers provides a simple and cost-effective donor paver-engraving and placement program.

Randomly placed bands of natural limestone reinforce the circular pattern and provide for limitless lengths of donor opportunities. The limestone is dimensioned to slip in between paver courses, allowing for ease of future installations.

The new Alumni Plaza is a representation of what SMC desires its campus environment to be--a place for students and faculty to merge, a place to take a break between classes, a place to conduct classes outside, a place to attend performances and activities, and a place for graduates to have their photos taken with family and friends to remember their college experiences.

It is a place to find connection.

Darla Davidson Aldred, ASLA, LEED AP, is a registered Landscape Architect with Arkos Design, Inc., an architecture, interior-design and landscape-architecture firm located in Niles, Mich. The Arkos team envisions a wide range of projects, including those for academic, corporate, and public clients, with an emphasis on the owner as an active participant in the design process. For more information visit or contact Darla at