Guest Column - October 2009
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Design Corner

Facility First Impressions
Lobby Spaces Set the Tone

By Tom Poulos


hen planning a new community or recreation center, don't diminish the importance of the design of the facility's lobby. This significant space not only sets the tone for the entire building and helps establish a facility's identity, but also should serve essential functions of providing a central informational and control point and offering space for community members to gather—formally or informally.

From a programmatic perspective, a community center's main lobby generally affords space for some key functions that express or support the facility's purpose. First and foremost, they are the main point of entry, providing welcome and reception, and serving to usher program patrons and other visitors deeper into the facility.

To be a welcoming point, a lobby has to be warm and inviting, have adequate light, and be informative and attractive. How do you achieve that? Through the selection of finishes that are esthetically pleasing, but also durable and maintainable to avoid acquiring a dingy appearance over time. Durable and maintainable surfaces can run the gamut, from porcelain to terrazzo to concrete, depending on budget and taste, but the trick is to reach an effective integration of materials in developing the selected architectural style.

Snacking & Socializing

Lobbies need to be designed in such a way that they create a welcoming atmosphere and provide an adequate level of comfort. Ample and ergonomically sound furniture and traffic flow options that allow for circulation and grouping are considerations not to be overlooked, while the building's overall theme can be expressed here through an integrated complement of materials, art and color.

The Park Center, in Glenview, Ill., for example, features a spacious lobby that reflects the 168,000-square-foot building's Prairie Style design. Aside from providing space to lounge, the generous space holds a café for snacking and socializing. The lobby also serves as a mechanism to inform, providing clues to the culture of the community. Works by local artists are on display for viewing and purchase, and a carved mural decorates the grand fireplace, depicting scenes from Glenview's history.

This type of display is one example of a design device that sidesteps functionality, but delivers a distinctive feature that can promote gathering, conversation and learning. Other examples include a dramatic open staircase and elevator that embellishes through architectural ironwork the contemporary lobby in the Bartlett, Ill., Community Center. Similarly, concepts are being developed for a decorative and interpretive display in a community center being planned for Cedar Rapids, Iowa, that will commemorate the 2007 flood that hit the community hard.

Murals, ornamentation and architectural features, such as piers, can help set a tone for a gathering place, and establish or expand upon a theme. Even a functional element such as an elevator tower decorated with architectural adornments can draw the eye. A well-planned lobby design that delineates a hierarchy of internal spaces can create a multitude of smaller "alcoves" for smaller, interpersonal congregating.