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Hamilton Alumni Review
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The Kirner-Johnson Building Makes a Grand Entrance

Don't believe that nonsense about the newly expanded Kirner-Johnson Building being completely different from the original. The Red Pit will still be red. As for everything else, well, see for yourself.

Larger, light-filled, environmentally efficient and outfitted with cutting-edge teaching technology, the 2008 incarnation of KJ opened for business in August to rave reviews, concluding the first phase of a $37-million overhaul that is scheduled for completion next summer. It adds about 40,000 square feet of space to the original building, opened in 1968 as the hub of Kirkland College.

Home to the College's social science departments as well as the Arthur Levitt Public Affairs Center, the Nesbitt-Johnston Writing Center and the Oral Communication Center, the new KJ is "everything we in the social sciences hoped for," says Professor of Economics Paul Hagstrom, who served as a faculty coordinator during planning stages of the renovation.

The building's most arresting feature is the airy, sun-drenched commons that greets pedestrians as they arrive via Martin's Way. It is "not so much a walk-through as a destination in itself," says Professor of Economics Christophre Georges, who also was involved in planning the renovations. Students frequent the commons throughout the day and night and find it "a good place to come and study," says Erich Romero '12, but they also find it an inviting place for conversation.

And how do the bookish and the talkative coexist without glares and shushes? The secret's in the water. Four small waterfalls at the inner point of the commons provide just enough white noise to encourage conversation while acoustically insulating those who prefer to study. When the system is turned off for maintenance, "students start leaving," Georges says.

But, as always, the first consideration in re-imagining KJ was the student-teacher relationship. Planners held focus groups with students and talked at length with faculty members. They also visited other colleges to see what worked and what didn't. "We were looking for improved technology, we were looking for places where we could meet with students outside the classroom, we were looking for students to have their own meeting spaces" for collaborative projects, Hagstrom says. "We were looking to put in anything that would improve the quality of our teaching and the education of our students."

As a result, tiered and horseshoe-shaped classrooms now let teachers move easily among students and foster exchanges between classmates because they're facing one another. Computer terminals at every seat allow collaboration and sharing of data. A digital control unit at the teacher's podium is automated to perform such functions as lowering a screen and controlling room light levels.

Planners also took an important lesson from the original KJ in using space wisely. "We discovered in the old building that if you had a classroom that held 30 people and one person was using that room, nobody else would enter," Hagstrom says. So the redesign provided smaller spaces for collaborative work — so-called "team rooms" — that afford a degree of privacy but also feature glass walls looking out on corridors. "If you come by in the evening," he says, "you'll find the team rooms are filled with student groups doing their own projects."

George Baker '74, who teaches and has an office in KJ as distinguished lecturer in government, thinks of the new building — the design for which received an Award of Merit from the American Institute of Architects — as a counterpart to the Science Center as an icon of contemporary Hamilton. "The KJ renovation is an enormous success pedagogically and architecturally in every regard," he says. Jeff Little '71 P'04, who chaired the recently concluded Excelsior campaign of which the Kirner-Johnson renovations are a key element, agrees. "It makes for a happier learning environment," he says. "We like to think that the KJ Building does away with the whole idea of the 'dark side.'"