Owner: Cooperative Educational Services
Architect: JCJ Architecture - James E. LaPosta, Jr., AIA, principal-in-charge; Gregory J. Smolley, AIA, project manager; Peter Rader, AIA, design team leader; Julie Norris, interior designer; Ronald N. Paolillo, Assoc. AIA, senior designer
Consultants: CES (MEP & fire protection); Michael Horton Associates (structural); Stantec (civil); Fisher Dachs Associates (theatrical); LaRosa Building Group (general contractor)
Curtain wall: Vistawall
windows: Peerless Products
upswinging doors: Marshfield
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In these tough times making good school design decisions has never been more difficult or more important. To find out how some of the nation’s top architects and administrators are coping with these challenges attend Architectural Record’s Schools of the 21st Century Symposium. It will be held Friday, April 9th, at the Hyatt McCormick Place in Chicago, the day before the NSBA Conference. The event is free of charge and is being presented with the support of McGraw-Hill Education and the American Architectural Foundation.
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CASE STUDY: Regional Center for the Arts, Trumbull, Connecticut, JCJ Architecture
A high school for the performing arts makes the most of students’ energy without taming their spirits.
The Regional Center for the Arts (RCA) is a magnet high school in Trumbull, Connecticut. Most of its faculty commutes from nearby New York City, and 250 students from 15 districts attend the school part-time, in the afternoon. In RCA’s new facility, JCJ Architecture made sense of what can be—and has been—a frenetic environment.
The articulated southern elevation of the Regional Center for the Arts reflects the pod scheme of its interior, and complements surrounding houses.
Photos: © Robert Benson
Connecticut has no county governments, so state-funded organizations like Cooperative Education Services (CES) have been created to raise the standard of public education. Dianne Wheeler, principal of RCA and a CES coordinator, explains that CES is “charged with bringing cutting-edge technology and school-based academics to our district.” RCA is the most recent of four schools the group has built since its inception more than 40 years ago, and it is the only performing arts school in southwest Connecticut. Construction of the 47,700-square-foot, $16 million facility, which opened in November 2007, was funded entirely by the state.
The school has shuffled through several buildings since its 1998 founding. Until RCA moved into its new home, classes were held in a repurposed warehouse. To save money for the construction of its new facility, RCA partitioned the warehouse with half-walls.
It would have been a challenging situation for any organization, but in a performing arts school it was sheer bedlam. For the three years they spent in that building, students had trouble concentrating. “The musical theater department had to drown out the band, which had to drown out the dance music and the acting department,” Wheeler says. JCJ design director James LaPosta, AIA, remembers, “It was like a maze.”
The school’s leadership invited JCJ to spend time on-site with students and faculty to learn what it would take for programs to succeed. LaPosta’s team ended up shadowing Wheeler for several days, interviewing teachers, and spending time in classes.
Perhaps not so surprisingly, the process revealed that acoustic separation was a top priority for RCA. In response, the design team proposed a single-story building with the school’s departments isolated in discrete pods that splay out from a panhandle shape; double walls and doors between classrooms further combat noise leakage.
1) Lobby 2) Administration 3) Student lounge 4) Main theater 5) Studio theater 6) Dance studio 7) Makeup classroom 8) Drama studio 9) Musical theater studio 10) Music studio 11) Video studio 12) Multi-use studio
The pods, each of which contains two, three, or four classrooms, open onto a lobby and common space. “The whole building was designed to promote community—instead of a hallway, you have this flowing area that connects the pods together,” LaPosta says of the public space, which also adjoins a main theater large enough to fit the entire student body. “There are all of these nooks and crannies where students can hang out and work on scenes.”
RCA sits on a slope between an existing special-needs school and a residential neighborhood, and in a nod to the larger community, LaPosta wanted the building “to mediate between these two contextual responses.” Pods are visually separated on RCA’s south elevation to echo the rhythm of homes across the street, and plank-cedar cladding helps the facility meld with the surroundings. On the north side of the building, a crescent-shaped facade of low-emissivity glass frames the entrance, filling the interior with daylight but not excessive heat. “We almost never have to put the lights on,” says Wheeler. “We’re operating on daylight 90 percent of the time.”
Just as Wheeler cites JCJ’s on-site presence as a reason for the building’s success, LaPosta praises Wheeler’s involvement in the design process. “One of the things she said to us was that it was all about the kids.” Her actions confirm the claim: One of Wheeler’s unorthodox requests was to put her modest office—among the few rooms with no windows—immediately adjacent to the common area, without the customary secretarial antechamber buffering her from the students
Wheeler, who will retire in the spring after 39 years as an educator, gives the building high marks. JCJ’s thorough research made all the difference, she says. The firm “really did resolve all of the challenges that we presented. They obviously heard us.”
Sebastian Howard is a writer and video editor based in New York City.
RCA’s free-form hallway links pods containing separate curriculum programs, such as music (top) and dance (middle). The pods, as well as the theater (above) located in the northwest corner of the building, are acoustically separated so that one student group’s artistic expression does not interrupt another’s deep thought.
Photos: © Robert Benson
A dramatic circulation corridor arcs from one end of the RCA building to the other, tapering at either terminus.
Photo: © Robert Benson
The crescent-shaped, north-facing entry elevation is finished almost entirely in low-emissivity glass, which welcomes daylight but mitigates heat gain.
Photo: © Robert Benson