For their Senior Capstone Projects, students enrolled in the University of Cincinnati’s College of Design, Architecture, Art & Planning are free to establish their own program and site. Nicole Germano, who completed her Bachelor of Arts in Interior Design degree in 2011, knew immediately that she wanted to design a learning environment for children in one of her favorite cities, San Francisco. “As a child, I felt like the school environment suppressed my imagination,” she recalls. For her thesis project, titled Play Lab, she set out to create a day-trip destination for children of all ages that promotes learning through play.
For a site, Germano chose a vacant 35,000-square-foot space on the fourth floor of the Metreon building, a shopping center that has struggled despite its prime location in downtown San Francisco. The space, which has access to an outdoor terrace, overlooks the picturesque Yerba Buena Gardens, a center for culture flanked by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMoMA) and the Contemporary Jewish Museum. The empty space provided Germano with a blank canvas upon which she could create her childhood ideal. Her intent was to cultivate “controlled chaos” by balancing structured and supervised activities within a colorful, stimulating, and flexible environment that “allows plenty of room for children to fill in with their imaginations,” she explains.
Play Lab’s main volume contains a multilevel indoor playground including a rock-climbing wall. Germano carved out a special area for younger children, called the Tot Spot, with a soft landscape and sensory wall. The Wonder Lab invites kids to learn about science and new technology through interactive video installations, and in the art studio, they can draw, paint, and sculpt alongside visiting artists. The studio incorporates a movable art wall inspired by the Storefront for Art and Architecture in New York. Rounding out the interior program of the Play Lab is a theater, as well as administrative and support spaces, and a public café.
Germano designed a new glass façade that weaves around programmatic elements. Portions of the glass wall fold open in pleasant weather, further blurring the line between indoors and outdoors. On the terrace, children would encounter the Aqua Wall, Water Play area, gardens, and a soft climbing structure. Germano envisions both the interior and exterior spaces of Play Lab to constantly evolve so children will have different experiences with each return visit.
Since matriculating, Germano fulfilled her dream of moving to San Francisco and is an intern in Gensler’s Workplace studio. She has noticed some parallels between designing for kids and professionals: “A lot of the same principles apply for tech-company workplace design,” she observes, given the trend towards flexible workspaces that offer lots of casual, communal spaces. “People are starting to value creativity and innovation, which often comes when you’re not sitting at a desk.”