Communication by Design: The story behind Wallis Annenberg Hall


Rendering of the Newsroom. Directly adjacent to the forum, the two-story professional multimedia newsroom brings USC Annenberg’s print, broadcast and online student news outlets into one common space for the first time.

A whole new way to communicate is under development at USC Annenberg, in the form of an 88,000-squarefoot, five-story building in the heart of campus with a design that connects people, fosters creativity and accelerates the school’s path into the future.

As media and communication shift more and more to the center of modern life, we have continuously worked to place ourselves at the center of that shift,” says Dean Ernest J. Wilson III. “This new facility will help us realize our ambition: Just as communication is at the center of modern life, USC Annenberg is at the center of communication and journalism—and at the center of campus!”

“We took Dean Wilson’s directive to heart,” says lead architect Dan Benjamin of the firm Harley Ellis Devereaux. “He wanted the building to be designed with space that connects rather than contains.”

The new facility’s learning spaces will include a blend of unique “huddle” spaces, movable walls, learning and research labs, and other features to foster future-oriented conversations and blue-sky thinking. Flexible furniture and meeting areas, drop-in space for visitors, and state-of-the-art production studios will create environments to turn these plans into action.

“In the spirit of the culture of innovation and experimentation, we’ll have spaces that are more conducive to random interactions and cross-fertilization, rather than having things separating off,” says Vice Dean Larry Gross, director of the School of Communication and one of the key members of the project team. “We’ve been trying for a village square kind of environment.” The core of the vision was prompted by Wallis Annenberg, whose long-standing commitment to openness, transparency and technology defined the spirit of the design. Equipped with today’s most revolutionary technology, the new facility also will help the school adapt to a pace of technological innovation that seems to have permanently shifted into overdrive.

Relief for a crowded learning environment

The current home of the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, designed by noted architect A. Quincy Jones and built for $3 million in the 1970s, was intended to accommodate only 100 graduate students. With a focus on collaboration and open discussion, the school grew organically, establishing new areas of scholarly inquiry and developing a unique combination of educational opportunities.

Along the way, the student population grew to 2,200 graduate and undergraduate students pursuing degrees in world-renowned communication, journalism, public relations and public diplomacy programs.

Renovations to the existing building have attempted to keep up with the pace of change, but can no longer do so.

“The original building was built before the personal computer was invented, and certainly before the integration of information technologies into everything we do,” explains Gross. “The fields of communication and journalism are at the high end of engagement with technology, so this changes things.

“At the simplest level, we’re out of space,” Gross continues. “We don’t have room for the faculty, for the research projects, for the activities. … We’re bursting at the seams. We have to expand, and we’ve taken this opportunity to build from the ground up.”

Converging factors of design

In preparing for the expansion, USC Annenberg turned to DEGW, an international planning and programming company that has helped innovative firms such as Google and Nokia determine how to create dynamic new space. DEGW held a series of workshops and interviews with USC Annenberg faculty, staff and students to assess what was—and was not—working in the existing building. They found that despite the school’s focus on collaboration and community involvement, portions of the current facility actually stifle interaction.

DEGW translated their findings into a set of guiding themes: Innovation, Versatility, Collaboration and Transparency. With this direction, the architects at HED took over, designing the new building’s centerpiece as a ground-level public forum—a meeting place and common area modeled on the ancient Greek assembly places known as “agora.” For inspiration, the project team visited a variety of similar spaces around the country, including MIT’s Media Lab, Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism, the Kennedy Forum at Harvard University and studios at Bloomberg News and Politico.

“The atrium connects all floors of the building, and then we have some walls within the atrium that are emphasized to make a connection between floors,” Benjamin says. “Vertical and horizontal surfaces connect in a way where visitors will be asking, ‘Is that part of the wall or part of the ceiling?’ We’re really responding to the idea that spaces connect.”

All-in-one media center

Directly adjacent to the Forum, the architects have placed a cutting-edge, collaborative multimedia newsroom, bringing USC Annenberg’s print, broadcast and online student news outlets into one common space for the first time. It will be centered around a converged assignment desk where editors will monitor multiple sources to produce the day’s news. A state-of-the-art broadcast studio, professional-quality control room, and suites of editing bays and flexible production spaces round out the media center.

“What we’re realizing as time moves on is everybody—not just the journalism students, but our PR, communication and public diplomacy students too—is using more and more technology and multiple platforms, and more and more social networks, in their academic work and in their professional work,” says Geneva Overholser, director of the School of Journalism.

“It’s very visible from Childs Way,” she continues about the news lab windows, which will look out onto the sidewalk of a primary campus thoroughfare, next door to the University Bookstore. “So it’s going to have the same feel as some of the TV studios in New York City. People walking to the student center will be able to see into the assignment desk, with all of our media labs together for the first time—it’s really going to be exciting.”

A 21st-century media school Beyond the first floor, Benjamin and his team devised a careful layering of intimate and public spaces that stimulate blending of people and ideas.

“There are open spaces that are always in concert with the more individualized spaces,” Benjamin says. “For example, you may be entering an office through an open work area, or entering the classrooms through the atrium.”

Mobile furniture pieces and rooms with movable boundaries also will create new pathways to inspire fresh thinking.

Taking a cue from the physical, the school’s virtual infrastructure will be equally open and flexible. A state-of-the-art media storage and distribution network will allow students to collaborate in new ways, blend interactive media and instantly share their stories with the world.

A move toward gothic

Given that the facility will be constructed on prime real estate at a key campus intersection, Benjamin and his colleagues have been working to maintain the traditional “vocabulary” of the campus, blending elements of Romanesque and neo-Gothic architecture to create a new signature look for the campus.

As for melding this structure with its much more contemporary contents, “We are trying to emphasize the verticality of the main interior space—the Forum—because Gothic buildings emphasize verticality,” says Benjamin. “Gothic started out as religious architecture, with the intention of raising your eyes to the sky.”

Apart from the building’s ability to encourage attention upward, the architectural interplay between the exterior’s evocation of the past and the interior’s focus on the future is especially appropriate for the study of communication and journalism, Dean Wilson says. “We hear from many sources—our peers, our external partners, our broader community—that it’s important to preserve the traditional values of integrity, ethics, responsible journalism and scholarly analysis while we stretch our work in innovative, interdisciplinary, unpredictable ways,” he says. “This building serves as a physical embodiment of those dual imperatives.”

Groundbreaking scheduled

On Nov. 8, 2012, USC will welcome trustees, faculty, staff, students, alumni and friends of USC Annenberg to campus for a ceremony marking the beginning of the initiative. Funds raised will pay for capital projects to enhance Wallis Annenberg Hall – labs, studios and technology – as well as student scholarships, fellowships, chaired professorships and funding for start-ups led by students and faculty.

Plans for the new 88,000-square-foot, five-floor building, scheduled to open in the fall of 2014, call for a four-story atrium with a rooftop skylight and multistory digital media tower and a fully converged, 20,000-square-foot newsroom that will allow students to share and publish from multiple sources to any medium. Television, radio and direct-to-Web vodcast studios will each be multipurpose and allow publishing to multiple platforms.

Join us at 11 a.m. at the new building site, on the west side of Pertusati Bookstore on Childs Way, as we celebrate the groundbreaking. An all-school lunch will follow, set in Founders Park.

RSVP (code: AnnenbergLunch)
USC map (type “Parking Lot 5″ for exact location)