A First Look Inside the New Contemplative Commons

January 3, 2024 By Alice Berry, aberry@virginia.edu Alice Berry, aberry@virginia.edu

Disciplines from across the University of Virginia will meet at the new Contemplative Commons, with construction set to be complete this spring.

UVA broke ground for the building, located adjacent to the Dell on Emmet Street, in 2021. Now, the pan-University, multipurpose complex is set to welcome students in the fall semester. The building will house and expand upon work being done at UVA’s Contemplative Sciences Center. 

The facility’s purpose is to enable “student flourishing” through a host of indoor-outdoor spaces, academic classrooms, immersive learning spaces and event spaces, and will include art installations and flexible studios that can be configured as classrooms, research labs or even yoga studios.

“This facility is really quite unique,” Architect for the University Alice Raucher said. “While first and foremost it is an academic building, it will also provide spaces for contemplation and mindfulness classes and events.”

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“We envision the Contemplative Commons as an extraordinary resource for our whole UVA community,” said Martin Davidson, interim director for UVA’s Contemplative Sciences Center. “Working together with diverse partners across Grounds, we will dedicate the building’s distinctive elements – classrooms, studios, research lab space, art installations and convening spaces – to help us deliver on our mission to combine contemplation, connection and research to enhance flourishing for everyone. When we formally open in the fall, we plan to launch a home for everyone in the community who is drawn to discovering what helps people thrive.”

The 57,000-square-foot, U-shaped building was designed by the architecture firm Aidlin Darling Design, which previously designed a contemplative center at Stanford University. Local firm VMDO Architects are the associated architects. Given the unique site adjacent to the Dell, the team conceived of a landscape-oriented building that integrates itself in the surrounding site, with special consideration of its solar orientation. The local firm Nelson Byrd Woltz Landscape Architects also helped connect the natural and built environments through horticulture, as well as designing the central courtyard and roof gardens, among other contributions.

View through a window at the center
Construction on the new Commons will be complete this spring. (Photo by Matt Riley, University Communications)

UVA Today recently took a tour of the Contemplative Commons to give readers a peek inside the new space.

Though the Commons has a more modern aesthetic than other buildings across Grounds, the architects used a site-specific material palette to maintain a cohesive look, with a red brick exterior atop a fieldstone base. The heavy timber courtyard provides a natural wood garden façade to face the landscape of the Dell.

In addition to its main entry on Emmet Street, students will be able to access the Commons through a pedestrian bridge, also designed by Nelson Byrd Woltz, on the third floor that will connect Central Grounds to the building. Visitors who enter on the ground floor will find a light-filled lobby featuring a double-height LED video screen. 

Philanthropists Cary Brown and Steve Epstein commissioned English artist Wolfgang Buttress to create a site-specific work, “Ninfeo,” that takes inspiration from the landscape surrounding the Contemplative Commons.  “Ninfeo” is a multimedia artwork that consists of backlit glass blocks etched with organic matter from the Dell. Data will be collected and transmitted from a sensor attached to a buoy in the pond, which will change the color and level of the light coming through the glass blocks depending on when a visitor comes to the installation.

Hallway of the building
The facility’s design uses natural materials – like wood and stone – to help blend the building into its setting near the Dell. (Photo by Matt Riley, University Communications)

Just outside the lobby and facing the Dell is a central courtyard with a water feature, meant to inspire calm and contemplation. The courtyard will be lined with gingko trees, a reference to the famed Pratt Gingko adjacent to the Rotunda.

Flexible studios are scattered throughout the building, allowing students, faculty and staff to have classroom space, labs to research or even places for dance groups to rehearse. One studio has a sprung floor to absorb shock as dancers twirl and leap. Each studio features foldable, stackable furniture that can easily be stowed away or reconfigured to suit programmatic needs.

An important component of the building is the new, accessible pedestrian bridge over Emmet Street, which in addition to providing access to the Commons from Central Grounds, will provide connectivity to the McCormick Road dorms. The new bridge was funded by UVA alumnus Jeff Walker, a former JPMorgan Chase & Co. vice chair who also sat on the Board of Visitors. (The existing bridge at Ridley Hall has stairs at both ends, making it inaccessible for those who are mobility impaired.)

“One inspiration for this bridge was the High Line in New York,” which provides landscaped areas to sit and rest in addition to providing connectivity above the streets of New York City, said Sarita Herman, supervisory team leader for the construction of the Commons. 

Exterior hallway bridge
An accessible bridge will allow visitors to enter the building on the third floor. (Photo by Matt Riley, University Communications)

“The building itself is a bridge,” Raucher said, referring to how the Commons will connect academic disciplines and events across Grounds and the broader community.

The fourth floor includes a residential kitchen and dining room, where professors can gather with their students or departments can host retreats.

The Contemplative Commons is a contemporary building intended to address the challenges and opportunities of being a 21st-century student, Raucher said. But it also honors the original vision of the University as a place which fosters community, research and learning.

The Contemplative Commons is funded in part by a $40 million lead gift from Paul and Sonia Jones, along with generous gifts from Walker, additional members of the Contemplative Sciences Center’s Advisory Board and other donors.

Media Contact

Alice Berry

University News Associate Office of University Communications