A Project That Celebrates Gothic and Modern Design


One perk of being married to a grad student is that I get to be on campus as often as I want… without the school stress! And if you’ve seen Duke University’s campus you’ll know what I’m talking about. It’s heaven for a designer. Most of the buildings, like Duke Chapel, were designed in the Collegiate Gothic style by Julian Abele in the 1900’s. One of my favorite of those buildings is the recently renovated West Union, Duke’s new student dining center.

I love how the building celebrates the old gothic architecture by preserving the windows, doors, and ceilings then turns around and contrasts it with contemporary design rather than trying to imitate the same style.


On the side of the building facing the original quad and Duke Chapel all you see is the classic facade, but from the rear you see the original architecture alongside a huge contemporary glass structure with all these bright fins. It’s really striking. The fins create a lovely rhythm on the exterior while shading the seating inside. And the color matches the yellow/orange found on the unique local stone used throughout campus.


The fins are carried inside with the wood-slat wall covering. The greenery growing in between the wood is such a great touch. All the glass plus huge translucent skylights on the ceiling bring light all the way through the building; you almost feel like you’re in a courtyard. It’s cleverly designed - there are 13 restaurants to choose from and many different dining areas all built around a central column of restaurants. You can see the inspiration from open-air markets.

The project goal of creating a hub for the whole university and bringing people together has been realized in a huge way. The scale of each dining space gives the right balance of privacy and connectivity. It's a place where you feel welcome to come and hang out.


Huge blackened steel openings connect the central dining area with the original buildings, which have been changed as little as possible. My favorite feature - the gorgeous wood dining hall ceiling - has been restored and there’s a new “attic” space where you can get a look up close. And can I just mention those sconces [insert heart eyes emoji]! Again you can see the contrast in styles, which is actually very Italian. I could sit there all day.


West Union is a celebration of old and new. But the aesthetics are not the only thing that have been updated. “Careful consideration was given to the environmental footprint of the building. By putting together a plan to reduce water use and maximize energy efficiency, West Union is [under review to be] LEED Certified.”

LEED certification uses a system of points awarded to a project based on various green building practices. Sustainable materials, water and energy efficiency, and better operations and maintenance (among other things) all contribute. It's a great third-party, measurable way to show how environmentally-friendly a building is.


So next time you're in town, make sure to visit Duke's West Union for a bite. The crepes are really good! :)


Grimshaw (New York) was the project’s architect, Skansksa USA (Durham) was the general contractor, and Celano Design Studio (New York) + Grimshaw did the interior design and branding. All photos are my own.