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Perspectives Charter School

Perkins+Will create a dynamic design that fits effectively into its tight site while adding drama to a residential context

© Steinkamp-Ballogg Photography

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By Blair Kamin

Chicago has a progressive tradition of school design, most notably the Crow Island Elementary School (1940), the human-scaled postwar masterpiece by Eliel Saarinen and Perkins+Will. But while Crow Island sprawls over the grassy landscape of the affluent suburb of Winnetka, the Perspectives Charter School, by Ralph Johnson, FAIA, of Perkins+Will, fills a far more compact urban site, in Chicago’s South Loop, about 2 miles south of Downtown. It also serves a far less privileged student body, nearly all of whom are African-American and Hispanic; 85 percent come from families below the poverty line, and only about 20 percent are from two-parent households. Typically, such numbers would lead to a predictable outcome: a prisonlike building with institutional, double-loaded corridors. But Johnson has upended that paradigm with a design that gives eloquent expression to the charter school’s distinctive mission: creating a disciplined but intimate learning environment.

Johnson saved money by substituting corrugated steel for the usual brick exterior and by using drywall instead of tile-covered walls inside. The design principally succeeds, however, because of Johnson’s deft handling of the 1-acre site, a right triangle that is an anomaly among Chicago’s relentlessly right-angled street grid. Pushed to the apex of the triangle, the wedge-shaped school, resembling a ship’s prow, makes a strong urban gesture. The architecture is deceptively sophisticated. In plan, it suggests a static wedge. But by making one side of the roof tilt gradually upward, Johnson reinforces the design’s dynamism and gets daylight into the multipurpose room through clerestory windows. Riding above a base of iron-spot brick, the corrugated-steel cladding enhances the sense of motion, evoking the city’s streamlined elevated trains, even as it responds to the industrial context. Dark aluminum mullions ensure that the ribbon windows read as part of the taut skin, not openings punched into it.

Inside, classrooms splay out to the perimeter of the school’s triangle shape, framing a multipurpose room. Impressively scaled rooms make what could have been a claustrophobic interior seem as open and light-filled as it is compact. Students and teachers repeatedly pass through the multipurpose room, which has become a mini town square. With its balconylike overlooks, the architecture facilitates interaction among students on the first and second floors. Even though this space has limits (the school borrows facilities for a theater and indoor gym), it projects a warm aura. The single-loaded corridors that lead from the multipurpose room to the classrooms are tough but loving, their easy-to-clean concrete floors balanced by welcoming touches such as benches set within niches. The classrooms are lit by both vision and clerestory windows, and are outfitted with ergonomic furniture that allows students freedom of movement instead of being forced to sit rigidly.

Despite its aggressive, sculptural form-making, the design is deeply urban, at once shaping the public realm of the street and enlivening it with peeks of the soaring, light-filled spaces inside. The building’s small scale helps ensure that kids don’t get lost in the shuffle. And in contrast to the facile traditionalism of the redbrick town houses that surround it, the Perspectives Charter School is at once of its place and brings something new to that place. Economical yet stirring, hard-edged but humanistic, this is the latest chapter in Chicago’s ongoing story of innovative school design.

Want the full story? Read the entire article in our December2005 issue.
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Formal name of Project:
Perspectives Charter School


Gross square footage:
30,000 sq. ft.

Total construction cost:
$4.5 million

Perspectives Charter School

330 North Wabash Avenue, Suite 3600
Chicago, Illinois 60611
Fax 312.755.0775


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