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Ideas / Client Stories / 7.20.2023

Embracing the Outdoors: Grinnell College Kington Plaza and Christiansen Outdoor Learning Spaces

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The Society for College and University Planning (SCUP) recently honored an Ayers Saint Gross project with a 2023 Excellence Award in Landscape Architecture for General Design for the spirited design of Grinnell College’s Kington Plaza and Christiansen Outdoor Learning Spaces. This award recognizes excellence in the design and planning of higher education campuses and focuses on the skillful uses of landscape elements and sensitive design that enhances the enjoyment of the outdoor campus environment. Most importantly, it honors projects that represent the mission, vision, and values of the institution and support teaching and student life. Guided by Grinnell’s goals of function, community, and artistry, the new Kington Plaza celebrates the college’s invigorating campus environment and serves as a model for a multi-functional collegiate landscape that supports a flexible and lively student experience.

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(Photo by Justin Hayworth/Grinnell College)

A hallmark of the plaza is a sequence of open-air classrooms and learning nodes designed in collaboration with students and professors across disciplines. Meant to embody Grinnell’s spirit of academic freedom, the nodes extend the campus learning environment to support student collaboration and quiet contemplation. Whether it is part of a curriculum or a spontaneous meeting, hosting a class outside is centered around the enhancement of student wellbeing and has become a popular option. The learning nodes can accommodate a range of class sizes, teaching styles, and technology, and are sized and spaced to ensure multiple classes can meet concurrently without distraction. Power outlets and Wi-Fi access support modern learning, while fixed limestone seating, movable furniture, double-sided chalkboards, and dynamic lighting for nighttime use create an adjustable, collaborative environment. Large custom concrete and wood boomerang benches are intended for social gathering and act as platforms for free speech and protest that bolster community voices. The design’s inherent flexibility provides students with more options to choose when, where, and how they learn by encouraging the use of outdoor space.

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Jules Bacon, Visiting Assistant Professor of Sociology teaches class outside. (Photo by Justin Hayworth/Grinnell College)

The plaza’s landscape harnesses the spirit of place and draws inspiration from the native plants and materials of the surrounding environment. Grinnell is located in Iowa’s tallgrass prairie region, an area defined by grasslands and expansive open spaces. To enhance the prairie context, the team shifted from manicured, turf-grass lawns to a prairie-inspired plant palette with dominant uses of switchgrass, prairie drop seed, and blue grama grass. Other native plants, including coneflower, oxeye sunflowers, and Aspen trees create seasonal diversity and spatial definition.  To celebrate local cultural elements, the team drew inspiration from Grinnell landmarks like the Midwestern, jewel-box style Merchant’s National Bank. The reality of Iowa’s long winters and early nightfall lead to design proposals including glowing lanterns atop new gateways and exterior lighting at activity hubs to maintain vibrancy and a feeling of warmth during cold nights.

Students use learning spaces during the evening.
Grinnell College Humanities and Social Science Center (Architect: EYP)

In accordance with Grinnell’s values, sustainability was emphasized in every decision down to the double-sided chalkboards, which were made from slate sourced from a demolished campus building. Lasting and local materials were prioritized alongside climate adaptable and native plantings to reflect the regional ecology and celebrate the unique prairie environment. Through this efficient use of existing resources, the plaza both celebrates and preserves Grinnell’s natural beauty.

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(Photo by Justin Hayworth/Grinnell College)

With outdoor space in high demand, the plaza is the new, thriving heart of campus, extending the classroom into the natural world and exemplifying the university’s devotion to a welcoming and supportive student experience.

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