‘A Link to the Past and a Window to the Future’
School of Public Policy’s Dynamic New Building Invites Problem-Solving Discourse
By Lauren Brown
Photos by John T. Consoli
The School of Public Policy’s new home is inspired by ancient Greece, but Plato and Pericles would surely be befuddled by its immersive videoconferencing, mic’d-up seating and transparent walls.
Still, the great philosopher and politician would both laud (with exceptional oratory) how the striking, light-filled structure that opened this semester supports the school’s mission to advance the public good, drawing together students, faculty and other experts in interconnected areas that will foster world-changing discourse and discussion.
The Agora, for example, is named for the central gathering spot and marketplace of ideas in Athens often considered the birthplace of democracy, while the building’s deliberative classroom is a contemporary take on a classic parliamentary debate chamber.
“It’s not just a high-quality space for training public leaders, but also designed to put students and faculty into practitioners’ space,” says Dean Robert C. Orr.
The building’s placement is also thoughtful, at the nexus of “town and gown”: Built into the gentle slope north of Chapel Field, the facility faces that green space, along with the bustling Baltimore Avenue corridor and the Rossborough Inn and overlooking McKeldin Mall. The light-rail Purple Line will pass right by the building, cementing its role as a welcoming entrance to campus.
The 70,000-square-foot building, made possible through the support of private donors in partnership with the state and university, also unites the School of Public Policy community under one roof for the first time in its 40-year history; its offices, centers and classrooms had been spread out over five sites across campus. Orr says the new hub, with its multifunctional and high-tech spaces, “will dramatically enhance the student experience.”
He and architect Irena Savakova M.Arch. ’95 of the firm Leo A Daly share more on how the building is, as she puts it, “a link to the past and a window to the future.”
Agora Study Spaces
Savakova imagined the wide, gently descending ramp extending across the building as “a concourse of conversations.” This indoor plaza/lounge space is furnished with small tables and comfortable chairs where students can meet and work while looking out giant windows onto Chapel Lawn and down Baltimore Avenue. Shades activated by light sensors help maintain the building’s temperature to minimize HVAC use.
This space for the entire university’s use has movable seating for 140 to allow students and instructors to collaborate in small groups. A glass-fronted conference room one level up in the back can serve as VIP or overflow room.
This oval-shaped forum is suitable for courses, public events and debates. It’s equipped with a state-of-the-art conferencing system, including microphones at all 50 seats and cameras that automatically track anyone speaking, allowing classes to easily engage with students and experts around the world. “It literally gives students a voice” in discussions, Orr says.
Reading Room and Terrace
This flexible top-floor space connecting indoors and outdoors offers sweeping views and will host experts, speakers, and public and private leaders.
Do Good Plaza
The outside area fronting the Rossborough Inn will celebrate UMD’s role as the nation’s first Do Good Campus. Public art will include a set of giant illuminated rings that will activate as people pass through with audio on how Terps are doing good in the community and around the world. These rings will lead people into the atrium, where they can interact with displays that tell the university’s greatest “do good” stories.
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