Press Releases 07.28.2022

Perkins&Will Celebrates Completion of George Mason University Humanities & Social Sciences Building

This soaring cathedral of learning and discovery challenges perceptions while inviting inquiry, entrepreneurship, and collaboration.
Photography by Halkin Mason Photography

Perkins&Will celebrates the completion of Horizon Hall, a soaring 218,000-square-foot academic and research facility at George Mason University (GMU) that is the new home of the university’s College of Humanities & Social Sciences. The campus’s largest building houses classrooms, faculty spaces, spaces for study and reflection, and the Mason Innovation Exchange (The M.I.X), an interdisciplinary center where inventors, artisans, and entrepreneurs can create projects, exchange ideas, and find support to foster product development.  

Perkins&Will also designed new construction of the university’s utilities infrastructure system and the renovation of the outdoor plaza that rests above it. The Wilkins Plaza Enslaved People of George Mason Memorial invites students and visitors to Horizon Hall, while reflecting the contradictory legacy of the university namesake as an American founder and champion of liberty who enslaved more than 100 people at his Northern Virginia plantation.  

“Horizon Hall not only meets our university’s practical needs for classroom, faculty offices and collaboration space, but the building itself educates and inspires as a three-dimensional teaching and learning tool,” said Cathy Pinskey, Capital Programs Director in Facilities at GMU who oversaw the project.  

Concealed behind a thin wood veneer and rendered in LED text, a constantly changing digital display of quotes and textual excerpts spans time periods, geographies, and languages.

A Launchpad to the World and the Humanities  

The Horizon Hall design challenges universal truths while simultaneously fostering collaboration and discovery of similarities and differences. The building features 20 innovative active-learning classrooms, as well as maker spaces and faculty offices.     

A large-scale integrated digital display in the Atrium, the “Word Wall,” acknowledges in a fresh and modern way the currency of humanities education: writing, textual analysis, and critical reasoning. Concealed behind a thin wood veneer and rendered in LED text, a constantly changing digital display of quotes and textual excerpts spans time periods, geographies, and languages. Curated by a college committee, students and faculty can use an internet portal to suggest fresh content displayed through a remotely programmed cloud-based computer platform.  

In a continuous process, a quote appears on the Word Wall, while another, often from a completely different time period and cultural context, is added. The mesmerizing and provocative replacement of the written words invites viewers to contemplate continuity and contradiction across diverse cultures and languages. 

Positioned next to the grand staircase that connects the lobby to the upper levels of the Atrium, another eye-catching feature is the “World Wall,” a map rendered in LED-illuminated acrylic bars that celebrates the power of the written word. The map is turned upside down to challenge perceptions of received truths. GMU’s motto “Freedom and Learning” is etched into acrylic bars in more than a hundred languages, with individual letters cast as shadows on the wall’s surface. The dappling of light and message embody perspective, change, and transformation to invite new and different ways to think about the world.   

“We envisioned Horizon Hall as a passage—a metaphorical journey for learning and what it means to be human,” said Paul Harney, Principal and Senior Project Manager in Perkins&Will’s Washington, D.C. Studio. “At the center of campus, the building and plaza were designed as literal and figurative crossroads connecting both campus life and the university’s past, present and future.”  

A Cathedral of Learning, Collaboration, Connection, and Reflection  

An expansive six-story atrium with floor-to-ceiling windows anchors the design, both for aesthetics and to flood the interior with warm, natural light. Every level of the grand space is lined with opportunities for collaboration and individually focused study, making it one of GMU’s most popular informal learning locations. The atrium’s openness also shines ample daylight on the Mason Innovation Exchange (the M.I.X,), the University’s prime maker space and locus of entrepreneurial initiatives, putting it on view for passersby to see creativity and invention in action. 

Perkins&Will also designed the renovation of the nearby Harris Theater, which reopened in February with an expanded lobby, updated ticket office, a newly refinished backstage with dressing rooms, green room, upgraded heating and ventilation systems, and state-of-the-art theatrical lighting and audio.

The activity of students collaborating, fabricating, and visualizing in its central high-bay space becomes part of the daily experience of walking to class.

Invention and Entrepreneurship  

The creation of the M.I.X., and its central location on campus, was a leading factor driving the design concept and form of the building. Its 25,750 square feet include a high-bay Makerspace, a Media Lab, and Innovation and Incubator space. The circulation and common spaces of Horizon Hall and the surrounding campus flow around the M.I.X., creating high visibility for the technology and collaboration on display. 

“The goal of the MIX space was not just to provide high-tech, hands-on workspace for GMU’s emerging innovators and entrepreneurs, but also to create a showcase for this creativity in the center of campus that invites the entire GMU Community to experience and participate in it,” said David Rogers, Associate Principal at Perkins&Will. The M.I.X is strategically located at the heart of the project, letting the circulation and gathering spaces of Horizon Hall and the surrounding campus flow around it. The activity of students collaborating, fabricating, and visualizing in its central high-bay space becomes part of the daily experience of walking to class. 

Sustainability and Wellbeing 

To promote a wellness spectrum, landscape spaces adjacent to Horizon Hall were designed and developed in conjunction with GMU’s Center for Advancement and Well-Being.  Through a sinuous walking path, the Labyrinth provides a calming and meditative experience, in contrast to the busy adjacent promenades and plazas of the central campus. The Labyrinth and its gardens, surrounded by grasses and perennials, also play an important ecological role in promoting an on-campus pollinator habitat. Trees and plants are labeled in support of GMU’s newly designated arboretum.   

Additionally, elements of the former Wilkins Plaza landscape were repurposed within the building. Oaks planted more than 40 years ago were removed because of overcrowding and the wood was harvested and repurposed as benches within Horizon Hall, keeping alive the story of the building as an aspect of GMU history. 

Within Horizon Hall, four staircases encourage a healthy alternative of walking to classrooms and offices on the higher levels. Perkins&Will designed each staircase to be especially inviting. The grand staircase in the Atrium is graciously wide and sloped less steeply than the maximum allowed by code. Egress stairs feature continuous glass exterior enclosures with sweeping views that connect inside and outside experiences in a central campus setting. And bridges spanning the atrium offer collaborative spaces with chairs and tables for work and conversation.