Duke University Serves up a New Concept in Student Dining and Socialization

Duke University, Richard H. Brodhead Center for Campus Life

The scene at Duke University’s Richard H. Brodhead Center for Campus Life in Durham, N.C., is brimming with student activity paired with plentiful light, rich aromas and even flashes of flame. Behind front facades steeped in time-honored tradition, a decidedly untraditional space took shape during the building’s retrofit that offers students a rich culinary and social experience.

The bold retrofitting of the Richard H. Brodhead Center for Campus Life still is respectful to the historic context of Duke University, Durham, N.C.

The bold retrofitting of the Richard H. Brodhead Center for Campus Life still is respectful to the historic context of Duke University, Durham, N.C.

The 3-story student union is the anchor of the Abele Quad and sits adjacent to Duke’s iconic chapel. Although the prestigious West Campus was completed in 1930, the two buildings showcase ornate, Gothic-style architecture constructed with stone from a nearby quarry. “The historic facades of the student union were sacrosanct but, beyond that, Duke was very open to contemporary interpretations,” says Architect David Cook, associate at New York’s Grimshaw. “This was a really bold move while still being respectful to the historic context.”

Situated at the nexus of student life on campus, the 112,000-gross-square-foot Brodhead Center is surrounded by structures that house athletics, performing arts and student services. The center’s former interior, however, was far from welcoming. Containing a typical university cafeteria that served lackluster food and grab-and-go meals, the center also was characterized by a rabbit warren of little rooms, offices and unorganized spaces. ”It really didn’t function like a center for student life at all,” recalls Mark Rhoads, associate at Grimshaw. “In fact, it was more like a fortress—you couldn’t even pass though the building, so it essentially kept students out.”

The renovation’s core concepts were to offer students an appetizing 21st-century dining experience and animated space that draws students in and encourages them to stay and interact. Grimshaw’s team began its work in 2012 with research of archival photographs. Team members saved the building’s important historic features (the north facade, Great Hall, Cambridge Inn and main tower) and created a modern interior and expansion.

Cultural Crossroads

The project’s program included a variety of restaurant venues where food is cooked in the open so students can order fresh, healthy fare and watch it being prepared. To entice students further, Duke brought in local vendors from popular Durham restaurants.

The global culinary choices range from Asian, including Indian; pizza and pasta; Southern; sushi; and vegetarian to a bistro and cafe with crepes and baked goods. In the Great Hall, a wood- burning fire pit offers paella, rotisserie meats and grilled steaks. A darkened pub equipped with an audio system allows students to hang out and listen to live music and poetry readings.

A teaching demonstration kitchen for cooking and chemistry classes also serves as a venue for pop-up restaurants; catering; and guest chefs, like Mario Batali, who visited the campus last fall as part of Duke’s annual Family Weekend. On the third level, students and faculty can enjoy a beautiful restaurant with a view and outdoor terrace. The space currently serves 7,000 meals per day.

With 12 kitchens, coordinating all the ductwork for mechanical equipment and grease exhausts was an enormous challenge. The project team completely removed the building’s former core and added central ducts and services to the center space. To accommodate and conceal all the additional needed services, as well as the plenum for air supply and return, the team strategically thickened the courtyard wall.

Meeting Space

A promenade, or “street”, lined with food vendors circles the core.

A promenade, or “street”, lined with food vendors circles the core.


“More than just nourishment from food, the program originated with truly epicurean ideas that included social interaction,” Cook explains. “We set out to provide a holistic experience that brought students together to dine, congregate and connect with each other.”

In the new core, the architects created an open social space. A promenade, or “street”, lined with food vendors circles the core. Reminiscent of public market spaces on the East Coast or converted train sheds and industrial warehouse markets in Europe, the concept breathes life into the space. Tables are everywhere, giving students a break from regimented dining and the opportunity to take their meal to their favorite spot.

The floor plan incorporates a variety of spaces to suit students’ needs and preferences. A lounge area feels like a living room with a restored functional fireplace and the cafe. Enclosed rooms with multimedia equipment serve as meeting space for student clubs and organizations.

Sense of Connection

To the south, the building embraces the outside campus with a gleaming glass atrium and a new walkway that reconnects the Brodhead Center to the student services building. “The weather in Durham is lovely, so we worked closely with the landscape team to provide a beautiful outdoor space that would be used throughout the year,” Cook says. “Outdoor seating and a contemplative garden space give students more places to go, and the atrium brings daylight and views to nature into the building.”

Although the center provides nooks and crannies for students to nestle, most of the space is open. Skylights enhance the sense of spaciousness. On the upper levels, Grimshaw chose frosted glass for stair treads and walkways to further lighten the atmosphere.

PHOTOS: James Ewing

About the Author

KJ Fields

KJ Fields writes about design, sustainability and health from Portland, Ore.

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