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Contrast and Context
School expansions are opportunities to teach students about different expressions of design.
By David Sokol

As America’s cities go, so go its schools. With people streaming into cities, school districts from Los Angeles to New Haven are renovating and expanding their existing building stocks to serve the growing student base. These ambitious programs are also helping urban school districts shed reputations once predicated on crumbling environments and poor academic performance.



Ralph Ellison High School: A glassy addition features an Ellison excerpt (top), while the historic building’s interior got a colorful update (above). Photos © James Steinkamp

“Traditional settings have failed some kids, especially in larger urban systems,” says Trung Le, AIA, design director of the education group at OWP/P in Chicago. “Interestingly enough, these urban areas are pulling ahead of well-to-do suburban districts in experimenting with new teaching methodologies and new environments.”

Thanks to a lack of large, vacant sites in many cities, urban projects require adding onto existing buildings, rather than starting from scratch. Not only are the results innovative pedagogically, but these expansions also spark an architectural dialogue with the urban fabric—and, perhaps, serve as an introduction to design for the next generation.

OWP/P’s design for Chicago’s charter facility Ralph Ellison High School serves as an object lesson in appending new to old. A glazed volume containing science and multimedia labs as well as administration workspace attaches to one side of a 1926 limestone building originally constructed as a Catholic elementary school. The old interior was renovated, too. The design team preserved such original features as wood-framed clerestory windows and added accents of bold color.

That color palette is echoed in the addition, although its distinguishing feature is its curtain wall in which an excerpt from Ellison’s Invisible Man is etched in the glass. “The contrast was very conscious,” Le says of the disparate exteriors, which are meant to symbolize Ellison’s break from the African-American literary tradition begun by author Richard Wright. Le also calls the glass inscription a teaching tool, enticing students to read Ellison’s novel.

“Dialogue allows you to interpret the old and new in a more interesting way.”


Beaver Country Day School: To house a new black box theater (top) at Beaver Country Day School, HMFH Architects created visual interest on its exterior by designing an intensely textured brick skin (above), since windows were out of the question. It is surrounded by a new classroom wing that’s more aesthetically similar to the original school building. The theater connects to that older building by a pedestrian bridge.
Photos © Wayne Soverns, Jr.

Alice Kimm of Los Angeles’s John Friedman Alice Kimm Architects also thinks of her studio’s two-year-old Aragon Avenue Elementary School expansion project in Los Angeles as a medium for educating students. The $6.2 million Aragon expansion, comprising a 16-classroom building with freestanding kitchen and cafeteria spaces, pragmatically responded to site conditions. The original faux Spanish colonial offered little respite from the surrounding Cypress Park neighborhood, Kimm says, and so the new classroom structure now defines a central upper courtyard. The building provides contrast as much as resolution. Its stucco surface features giant blocks of paint whose colors evoke neighboring bungalow houses and the landscape, which give the illusion that the building has a much more complex, faceted geometry. “We like to set up a dialogue. It allows you to interpret the old and new in a more interesting way,” Kimm says, adding, “The arts are so underfunded in these schools that we wanted to give students a physical environment that could provide the inspiration they may not be getting in the classroom.”

In Dallas, an addition to a school dedicated specifically to the arts still expresses the difference between old and new. The Portland, Oregon-based Allied Works Architecture won a 2001 competition to design a 170,000-square-foot expansion to Booker T. Washington High School’s 1922 landmark building. Firm founder Brad Cloepfil, AIA, calls the new building “just an industrial space” reminiscent of the lofts where contemporary artists work. Cloepfil used a masonry structure to achieve some consistency with the 86-year-old building, and also opted to arrange the campus in a courtyard so students feel sheltered in the city’s vibrant Arts District.

Despite his modesty, Cloepfil did design the expansion of Booker T. Washington to prompt a “visceral” response in students and visitors alike. The new building’s brick is manganese-flashed to give it the appearance of igneous stone, standing out from the red brick of yesteryear. And the interwoven public spaces, such as the central courtyard and interior corridors stacked to create an atrium, are configured to accommodate students’ Fame-like bursts of energy. Cloepfil views the students as an element of this animated design, and as collaborators—he even proposes that students enliven the building with their own graffiti.

Despite this trend of urban-school additions in which architectural contrast trumps context, Kimm says that not all clients are willing to catch the wave. “Upper-level establishments,” she says, “are fairly resistant to contemporary design. Tradition and its icons are harder to uproot.”

In a sign suggesting that the phenomenon is emerging from nascence, some of those institutions are embracing Modernism. At the venerable Beaver Country Day School, in Brookline, Massachusetts, for example, HMFH Architects of nearby Cambridge, created a pearl within an oyster when it wrapped a new black box theater featuring an intensely textured brick pattern in a classroom wing whose exterior looks more like the original 1920s campus. “Because [the theater] is such a different and creative, creature we thought it should reflect that,” HMFH principal Pip Lewis, AIA, says of the unique brick-clad structure. To be sure, circumstances may not always permit an expressive architectural response. But clients and designers are clearly recognizing an opportunity to elevate a common building type to an inspirational art form.

 



Aragon Avenue Elementary School: John Friedman Alice Kimm Architects designed an inexpensive addition that wrestles the once-open site into a courtyard-campus configuration (top). Exterior paint creates the impression of a faceted facade (above).
Photos © Benny Chan/Photoworks


Booker T. Washington High School: Portland, Oregon-based Allied Works Architecture designed the expansion to Booker T. Washington High School in Dallas. The new building’s brick exterior (top) complements the masonry of the 1922 building, although its fiery gray color is meant to convey the rawness of an industrial space. Inside (above), the daylit circulation core encourages students’ impromptu performances.
Photos © Helene Binet