The Commons teams up with architecture students to offer new access to campus garden

LAWRENCE – Since August, students in Keith Van de Riet’s ARCH509 Design-Build class at the University of Kansas have been working to develop a design for the Weaver Courtyard that brings the The Commons’ mission of interdisciplinary collaboration to the outdoors.

The previously underutilized green space just south of Spooner Hall had been a bit like a secret garden for several years. Enclosed by an ornate iron fence, and accessible only by one staircase, the area was not easily seen or reached by pedestrian traffic on Jayhawk Boulevard. However, through support from an interdisciplinary Starter Grant at The Commons and the donations of a number of individuals, the project connects the Department of Architecture’s third-year design-build studio goals of hands-on learning with the cross-disciplinary mission of The Commons.

Beginning with a research-intensive semester in spring 2018, students laid the groundwork for a larger construction undertaking this fall through site surveys and historical research on the building and grounds. They also consulted with Professor and Senior Scientist Kelly Kindscher and other native plant specialists at the Kansas Biological Survey; Professor Emeritus of French/Italian Ted Johnson and practicing engineers and architects, including KU alumnus Chris Boos. Putting this work into action, they cleaned up sightlines on the west exterior of the garden, replacing several invasive species with native plants and created a new seating area from a defunct fountain.

This semester, students are taking this work further. They created a comprehensive design plan that centers the natural elements — earth, fire, water and air — and overlaps an axis of design elements, using sculptural focal points to illustrate and invite a connection between humans and nature. The students are continuing to work with researchers across disciplines as well as with Facilities Planning & Development. In addition to campus resources, the students have engaged local mason and artist Karl Ramberg of Ramberg Stoneworks to learning time-tested crafts, such as stone carving and tuck-pointing, as they repair damaged stonework and build a new access point to the garden.

“These studios, and in particular this project, are really exceptional learning modules because the students get such great experience – from historic context, site design, underground utilities, permitting and approvals, committee reviews, collaboration skills, professional drawing standards, and on and on,” Van de Riet said. 

The students’ work will make it possible for more people to experience the space through an ADA-compliant ramp. Additionally, user experiences will be amplified by a new system to divert water runoff from Spooner Hall to planted beds, more native plant species to reduce maintenance needs and increase pollinator traffic, and the additional sculptural elements.

Emily Ryan, director of The Commons, said she is excited about this work and the opportunities it creates.

“This project is an example of what can come from genuine investment in working across disciplines, which is what The Commons aims to foster. The work is richer and better-informed for the multiple perspectives and approaches that Keith and his students have involved from the beginning, and as a result, we’ll all benefit from a fully conceived space.”

Students will continue work on this project throughout the semester.

Financial and in-kind support for this project has come from an Interdisciplinary Starter Grant from The Commons and KU Research; Jeff and Mary Weinberg; Historic Mount Oread Friends; Amy Albright and Doug Davison, Vinland Valley Nursery; Myles Schachter, 2Sculpt; Celka Straughn; Weston Tanner; Kathy Porsch; Martha Hodgesmith; Catherine Goga; Brian Moss; Michael Burke; Keith Van de Riet; Susan Dickherber; Frank Hoffman and Sandra Sanders.