Kengo Kuma applies modular assembly scheme to student housing

Featuring a stepped promenade that cuts through an otherwise uniform grid of operable screened windows, Kengo Kuma & Associates’ (KKAA) residences for students at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva challenges the separation of public and private spaces of a traditional dormitory. Rather than reserving the ground floor for public spaces and sequestering student rooms on upper floors, the promenade of this approximately 330,000-square-foot building allows for shared access up through the building to its rooftop through a common circulation route.

KKAA partner-in-charge Javier Villar Ruiz described the intended effect as creating a sense of community for students who arrive from around the world to study in Geneva. In particular, the design avoids circulation that is overly reliant on elevators. By providing public access through this single route, the promenade brings visitors, workers, and other members of the public through the dormitory in the same way that students enter and exit the building, breaking the isolation that many dormitories and campuses have from their surrounding communities.

Shadows on a campus dormitory
The operable screens cast shadows on the elevations. (Iwan Baan)

To keep the promenade open across floors, KKAA’s design team worked with the project’s engineers to keep the space free from structural and mechanical elements. The floors above the open promenade cantilever overhead for nearly ten feet meters in most locations; the longest span is about 17 feet. This posed a structural challenge, but because the apartments were realized in a modular assembly, the shared walls were used as “wall beams” to support the cantilevers, Villar Ruiz told AN. Showers and restrooms were placed in the back of apartments to keep the promenade free of mechanical, electrical, and plumbing elements.

The 700 student apartments, each just over nine feet wide, follow a strict grid. From the exterior, the building’s surfaces are defined by the large expanses of its operable facade. Each apartment has two windows covered by four foldable metal mesh screens, “conceived to be coherent at all scales,” Villar Ruiz said. Students can open windows for air circulation and, separately, adjust the outer screen for shading.