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University of San Francisco: Transforming the John Lo Schiavo, S.J. Center for Science and Innovation
Landscape Architecture by INTERSTICE Architects


INTERSTICE Architects, led by principal landscape architect Zoee Astrachan and design principal Andrew Dunbar, designed the reconfiguration of the University of San Francisco's John Lo Schiavo, S.J. Center for Science and Innovation. The two-acre site redevelopment had two phases, with the campus walk completed in 2009, and the building and plaza completed in 2013. Looking west from the student union building towards the studio tower, the dome and towers of St. Ignatius Church rise beyond, a reminder of the university's Jesuit Catholic designation. In the evening, the tiered classroom (left) and study spaces beneath the plaza glow, while light levels on the lawn and gardens remain low and focused on the paving and bridge.
Photo: Bruce Damonte

The University of San Francisco was founded in 1855 as St. Ignatius Academy, officially becoming USF in 1930. The Jesuit University is home to more than 10,000 students in the school year that started in fall 2015. INTERSTICE Architects, headquartered in San Francisco, was called upon to reconfigure the landscape of the new John Lo Schiavo, S.J. Center for Science and Innovation (CSI), named after the late president and chancellor of the University.

A transformative landscape approach was used to completely reconfigure the central social hub of the campus, creating a rejuvenated and integrated landscape that connects and enriches as it weaves through the new LEED Gold academic building. The design team determined that this central site would better support the CSI's mission of fostering multidisciplinary collaboration and discovery, and that landscape would bring it together. Limited land at the heart of campus demanded an unprecedented level of integrated project delivery in which the landscape merged with the building to take front stage in the new development.


Skylights bordered by concrete serve as a perimeter for the bio-pool and its water plants and other native water-loving flowering perennials. This integral element of the garden receives stormwater from the roof of the studio tower and supports a biodiversity of insects, birds, and small amphibians, instructive for biology study.
Photo: INTERSTICE Architects

Breaking from a century old tradition of landscape subservient to buildings, the design deployed foundation plantings around "buildings-in-the-landscape." This radically integrated design solution placed over two-thirds of the new building below ground, comprehensively redefining the existing central Harney Plaza as a high-performance, bi-level rooftop landscape connecting interior and exterior space. By establishing multi-level access between building and landscape, the design creates an experience of moving seamlessly between multiple expressions of "ground" on three separate levels of the inner campus.



The multilevel plaza connects study spaces to social places, overlapping, bending and folding back upon itself, as it interweaves the Science Center with the ever-active Student Union. An undulating lawn joins the new campus walk to the upper plaza, and a broad stone ramp connects upper and lower campus in a series of carefully calibrated outdoor "rooms."
Photos: Marion Brenner (top) & Sean Airhart (bottom)

The folded and overlapping landscape covers the roof of the "in-ground" two-story complex of laboratories, classrooms and lecture halls. It is woven throughout the building, emerging to support a complex palette of native plants (including rushes, beach strawberry, irises and monkey flower), which attract small insects and birds that permeate the newly enhanced campus thriving side by side with students and faculty in the newly established landscape ecology. The design success is measured in its ability to provide a reimagined "academic landscape" that fulfills a socially and ecologically sustaining role finally in line with the university's aim to expand the growing links between the sciences and social science disciplines.


Extruded skylights on the West Plaza double as seating elements aligned with the pixelated Fibonacci series paving pattern in the foreground. The skylights flood light into the biology classrooms below. The plaza paving surface is slanted with a slot drain where the angled paving meets the flat paving. This gives the roof garden soil sufficient depth. Between the skylight seating are stormwater infiltration areas filled with rushes, beach strawberry, irises, 'Monkey' flower and other water-loving yet seasonally drought-tolerant flowering species.
Photo: Bruce Damonte

To unify the campus and enhance student connectivity, the landscape clarified and realigned the central circulation spine of the USF campus, creating a ginko-lined campus walk. This new walk, which replaced the meager vehicular asphalt access drive, shifted the focus to pedestrian circulation. The gingkos were selected as the signature campus tree for its uniqueness as an ancient species, its connections to the Pacific and Asian cultures, its longevity, and its traditional medicinal relation to the sciences. As an added bonus, its seasonal foliage colors change from green to gold, celebrating the school's official colors. By linking the other faculty buildings through this simple gesture of pageantry, the campus axis is formally established, now refocused on the tower and dome of St. Ignatius Church.


"Islands" of plantings afloat in a "river" of pixelated stone permeable paving infiltrate stormwater, collecting it in a cistern for reuse. The green and red foliage of the Japanese maples in the planting islands will mature to peek above the upper plaza railing. Salvaged granite seating slabs with donor plaques edge the planting beds. Interior lighting is shared by and enlivens the lower plaza while the subtle glow of integral fixtures at the bridges. Feature lighting at the planting areas permeates the landscape spaces - allowing one to see between the linked interiors and exterior social spaces along the edge. The lighting was designed by NBBJ Architects.
Photo: Marion Brenner

The mise-en-scene of student life was further established by the undulating lawn adjacent to the campus walk, which bridges a lecture hall below to connect with a dining amphitheater adjacent to the University Center Student Union Cafe. The new bilevel plaza is a multifunctional social landscape that supports campus rituals, daily gatherings, and specially scheduled activities in a sustainable and supportive relationship to the larger regional ecologies native to the Bay Area.


The newly aligned campus walk is lined with unit pavers, gingko trees and grassy perennials to establish a ceremonial procession towards the St. Ignatius Dome. Gingko trees were chosen in part because their foliage colors - green and gold - match the university's official colors. Students meet and relax on the sunny terraces tucked below the studio tower.
Photo: Bruce Damonte

This high-performing landscape acknowledges its contribution and proximity to significant ecological resources in San Francisco and to the migration path of the Pacific Flyway. By studying the fluid dynamics of wind through predictive modeling and thermal microclimate analysis, the landscape design was fine tuned to attract select species that would advance the natural ecology of the area. The deep plantings support large trees while supporting a bio-pool within significant storm water filtration areas, which in turn feed collection and storage reservoirs of water for cooling campus facilities. These ecologically intensive habitat areas correlate with the Science Center's larger pedagogical objectives related to environmental sciences. This multi-faceted "outdoor" classroom serves at the many levels now expected of exemplary campuses of higher education, and ensures USF as a leading institution of environmental stewardship and education globally in the coming century.


The sunny and protected dining terraces between the student union cafeteria and the campus walk provide seating in a lush planted setting just off the newly aligned main pedestrian thoroughfare. Here, steeper terraces create intimacy and shelter.
Photo: Marion Brenner

Team List:
Landscape Architects and Designer: INTERSTICE Architects
Architect: NBBJ Architects
Lighting Designer: NBBJ Architects
Structural Engineer: Forell/Elsesser Engineers, Inc.
Irrigation Design: Russel D. Mitchell Associates, Inc.
Civil Engineer: BFK Engineers
Ecology Consultant: Habitat Potential
MEP Engineers: Timmons Design Engineers, Inc.
General Contractor: Cahill contractors
Landscape Contractors: Eggli Landscape Contractors



The multilevel plaza connects new classrooms to the Science Center and the Student Union Building. The lawn links the campus walk to the upper plaza and Harney Hall, part of the Science Center. The lawn is seeded with perennials that provide additional food sources for birds and insects. Guardrails are open to the lower level plaza and terraces.
Photos: Bruce Damonte

As seen in LASN magazine, June 2016.

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