Durham, North Carolina (2005 – 2006)

Client: Duke University

Duke University is well known for its rigorous academic climate, championship basketball teams, and its vibrant student life. A 2002 study commissioned by Duke revealed that an open plaza area in the center of campus that was intended to be a focal point and gathering place for the student body was greatly underused. The University identified the need to improve the plaza and create a central, democratic space to serve as a public forum for student activities, a place for casual encounters, and a space for the entire student population to unite as a whole.

Duke hired the architecture firm Hargreaves Associates to design a central plaza, which would connect the main academic quad to the dining hall, student center, theater and chapel. With the plaza in construction, Duke hired Project for Public Spaces to create a public spaces vision in order to elevate the newly constructed plaza from a physical gathering place to a spiritual, emotional, social, and intellectual crossroads for the entire Duke community.

To ensure that this new plaza would truly serve as a central gathering space for the entire Duke community, PPS studied the campus and plaza through student, faculty and staff surveys, interviews and community workshops. The outcome of the Placemaking program revealed a need for a wide variety of activities, from a farmers’ market to coffee vendors, and outdoor movies to live performances. The students wanted a comfortable, inviting space with places to sit, places to eat, places to play and gather — all the while feeling as though they are in a connected place that is uniquely “Duke,” and that reflects the diverse and active student body.

The vision for the plaza, as facilitated by PPS, is for a flexible space that will be host to a variety of events and activities including celebrations, performances, and everyday uses like studying, eating, socializing, gaming and tabling. The workshop participants identified the need for unique activities on the plaza, such as outdoor movies, games, performances, healthy food vendors, student activity advertisements, and study areas. To support these uses and activities, the proper amenities and elements are necessary, such as an assortment of movable seating options, café tables, shade structures, temporary stage, areas for exhibiting student art, flexible outdoor furniture, gaming tables, and seasonal plantings.

Construction of the plaza was completed in the fall of 2006, including the entire physical structure as well as key amenities and site furnishings. The plaza hosts public art installations, numerous student events and activities, and the movable park chairs recommended by PPS are a huge success with the students.