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Architecture and Urban Planning

A table for 12, six feet apart: U-M architects reimagine outdoor courtyard

By Amy Spooner

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ANN ARBOR—During a typical fall at the University of Michigan, students are often in the courtyard of the Art and Architecture Building socializing, studying and meeting as classes. 

Even though the coronavirus pandemic has made this fall feel atypical in many ways, Taubman College students and faculty members wanted to ensure that the courtyard retained its ability to be a community gathering space.

A group of faculty and students recently created an outdoor, socially distanced instructional space to activate the inner courtyard at the Art and Architecture Building, home of the Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning and Stamps School of Art & Design. The goal was to allow the university community to safely utilize the popular space by intuitively adhering to health and safety guidelines required by the pandemic.

The large, health-informed work tables each accommodate up to 12 people and adhere to health and safety guidelines. Photo by Eric Bronson / Michigan Photography.

The social distancing challenges of the pandemic are amplified in design education, which relies heavily on collaborative, spontaneous and interactive exchanges in studio and classroom environments,” said Anya Sirota, associate dean for academic initiatives and associate professor. “One response to this dilemma was to harness our own disciplinary expertise to create a more engaging, empathetic spatial experience, which despite some very real constraints, rings true to our collective culture.”

Sirota, along with other Taubman College faculty and staff including Jonathan Rule (assistant professor of practice), Ana Morcillo Pallarés (assistant professor), Jacob Comerci (academic innovation program manager), and Ishan Pal (research assistant) co-designed two large, health-informed work tables, which each accommodate up to 12 people and adhere to health and safety guidelines. 

Students Gary Zhang, Adrian DiCorato and Kristina Cantarero assisted with the fabrication of the tables. Taubman College’s Digital Fabrication Lab and woodshop provided additional support.

The tables aggregate to form symmetrical clovers but can be disassembled into medium-sized ovals and individual fragments. There are also several umbrellas placed throughout for shade. When space is not occupied by a class, students, faculty and staff can use the adaptable furnishing for informal, socially distanced gatherings.

Additionally, Taubman College faculty designed a “cabana” for the undercroft at the Art and Architecture Building. It will hold additional outdoor furnishings: umbrellas, lawn chairs and inflatables. Students are free to bring these items to the adjacent hill, or “the beach” as it has been affectionately named, to use during study and conversation. A cleaning station is available to ensure safety.

The team also created a space for the undercroft of the building, affectionately called “the beach.” Photo by Eric Bronson/Michigan Photography.

“The table will be useful now, and it will be useful a year from now — it’s not a pandemic-specific artifact. That said, social distancing guidelines acted as a productive constraint, inflecting our design decisions,” Comerci said. “When the table is reconfigured, it will allow us to get nearer; when aggregated, the table’s scale and geometry intuitively inform us how to stay safe while being together. The outcome is informal, economical and droll.”

The courtyard can be booked for class use by faculty or students in the Taubman College and the Stamps School through Oct. 29, 2020.

U-M Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning

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