By Karen Aquino | November 27, 2011 at 11:05 pm | via the Daily Pennsylvanian Some people use it as a study space, others use it as a hangout spot, and some even use its leather couches for a nap in between classes. As the home for three main cultural centers on campus — Makuu Black Cultural Center, La Casa Latina, and the Pan-Asian American Community House — as well as the Center for Undergraduate Research and Fellowships, the ARCH building plays a central role in campus life.
“It’s like a home away from home,” College senior Charley Ma said. “People come here in between classes to hang out, and there’s always other people to talk with.”
The familial and welcoming atmosphere of the building, which groups together the three cultural centers on the first floor with a central lobby, is unique among other, more formal, campus buildings.
The activity level oscillates throughout the day. When it’s quiet, students whisper to each other as people sit studying or napping on the couches in the lobby. At its loudest, laughter and music can be heard coming from each of the cultural centers, sometimes in different languages.
“It represents a safe space, a home for students to come to when they feel like they need somewhere to go,” Engineering junior Michelle Leong said. “There are always people willing to talk, people to interact with and learn from, especially with the cultural centers here all together,” added Leong, who was recently elected as Chair of the Asian Pacific Student Coalition.
As preparations continue for the ARCH building’s renovations, slated to start in May 2012 and end in December 2013, there have been concerted efforts to preserve the building’s character while maximizing the use of the space available, according to Rob Nelson, executive director for education and academic planning in the Provost’s Office.
“We’re doing our best to minimize the disruption [on student life]. Having the cultural centers relocated to a place that is central on campus is really important to us,” Nelson said.
As a temporary location for the building’s centers continues to be finalized, there are already ample discussions going on regarding how the new, updated space will be used.
“The architects have been meeting frequently with students and staff to ensure that the renovated space meets the needs of Penn’s diverse community,” Senior Associate Vice Provost for Student Affairs Ajay Nair wrote in an email.
The committees, which will all involve students, include an art gallery and programming committee and a space reservations committee, Nair continued. Both committees will discuss how to best use the new spaces available in the renovated building.
“There are so many different things we want to do with the space, and because it’s historically protected, we have boundaries — we can’t do everything we want to do,” 1998 Wharton graduate and associate director of Makuu Daina Richie-Troy explained.
“That said, I think we’ve come to a good conclusion, in terms of how to best use the space for everyone involved, especially the students,” she added. “I think they’re going to make out the best, in terms of the technology and room usage that’s going to be changed.”
While the renovations will require the centers to move out of their current spaces by May of next year, these changes are welcome for a building that was built in 1927.
“We’d like the roof to not keep falling on us,” CURF Assistant Director for Communication Aaron Olson said.
The renovations and additions to the building — which, among other things, will add an elevator for handicap access — are “eminently practical and the building desperately needs it,” Olson said.
“We’re setting up a space that will ensure that we have the same traffic and camaraderie that we have now. It’ll be difficult to replicate the lobby right now, but we’re going to do our best,” Troy said.
After the renovations, CURF’s offices will move to the south side of the 2nd and 3rd floors of the ARCH, according to Olson. The cultural centers will be on the ground floor of the building, which is currently a sparsely used basement that can only be accessed from inside the building.
In order to maximize access to the ground floor housing the cultural centers, an entrance will be constructed on 36th Street that will lead directly into the space. The space will resemble the ground floor of Houston Hall and College Hall in terms of accessibility to the public, Nelson said.
During homecoming weekend, a panel was held to update alumni on the renovations taking place and to get their input on the plans.
“There are still a lot of opportunities for alumni to be involved, in terms of donating and naming gifts, but then there’s also a recognition that both the building and the cultural centers and CURF are really important parts of Penn students’ experiences. There are alums who are invested in the centers, and we want to make sure that we’re communicating to them [information] about the project,” Nelson said.
Kaneesha Parsard, a 2011 College graduate, noted the dynamic nature of the building as she experienced it during her time at Penn.
“If the University can maintain its commitment to the cultural centers as an anchor for student life, not just for people that belong to the groups served by the student center but as a hub for broad learning and activism, then I think that the cultural center spaces will maintain their integrity,” Parsard said.
Alumni remain attached to the building after graduation. Even today, some come back looking for the Christian Association, which formerly owned the ARCH Building until the University purchased it in 1999.
“I’ve gotten to see people grow up here, and not even only people in Makuu, but everyone who comes through the building,” Troy said. “There’s something about this space that is very special and that allows you to see people develop as students and as leaders.”
Kathleen Robinson, the security guard who has worked at the building for the past three years, shares a similar rapport with the students that come to the building to socialize, hold student group meetings or to work.
“Around Christmas time, I try to bring something for each group, since they feed me at their events throughout the year,” Robinson laughed.
Robinson —who buys tickets to the performances of the various groups that practice in the building, including Penn Lions and the New Spirit of Penn Gospel Choir — enjoys the welcoming nature of her workplace.
“I know everybody that comes in and out of here, and I miss the students when they graduate. But then I enjoy getting to know the new ones that come in,” she said.
With the building’s impending closure in May, student groups that make use of the building will have to relocate their meetings and practices throughout campus.
“The next two years [during the closure of the ARCH building] are going to be hard on students … We just have to hope for the best,” Robinson said.