Beautifying the Commons

McCarthy Dining Commons Addition, Framingham State University
Framingham, Massachusetts

Program and dining opportunities at Framingham State University’s McCarthy Campus Center were severely constrained by an existing plan that strung out seating in an embedded floor level, where no combination of appropriate ceiling height and column-spacing could support celebratory events. Only 50 of the existing 500 seats had direct views to the outdoors.

The design proposed attenuating and pulling back subsidiary service volume, and inflecting the enclosure with an angled wall. The result is a transparent “jewel box” formed by continuous glazing, where all 250 new seats visually participate in the campus landscape.

Looking out, students now looked upon a new elevated garden at the southwest, a heavily treed primary campus pathway to the north, and—because the floor elevation of the facility is nine feet above the level of the existing adjacent surface parking—parallel stands of dense trees to the west, which frame a historic neo-Romanesque chapel just beyond the project site. The 14-foot tall soffit within the 55-foot clear-span central space, highlighted by its contemporary halo-like “chandeliers,” defines the volume of formal seating.

SMMA’s approach was to achieve a large outcome through a relatively small intervention—that is, to take advantage of the dining hall’s traditionally central role in campus life as a place of daily gatherings and special communal events.

Flexibility for the Future

The modernist design language of the expansion is consistent with the 1970s era of the original McCarthy structure and contextual with an earlier addition on the front. But on a more practical level, it expands the Commons’ views to three sides while capturing desirable southern light. SMMA also added a third program component that “serves” the Dining Commons in a larger sense—an outdoor space. This space is highly flexible and designed to meet the Dining Commons’ needs over time. Specifically, it can evolve from garden, to dining terrace to future dining space, as needed.

The exterior design of the Dining Commons' expansion is a simple elegance in glass and lineal banding. The design develops the strong theme of its indoor/outdoor connection, highlighting an intentional blending of the new with the existing. The project's strong attention to design and detail is seen throughout.

AIA Central Massachusetts, 2016 Design Awards Jury