Architect: Johnson Fain — Scott Johnson, FAIA, design partner; William H. Fain, Jr., FAIA, managing partner; Larry Ball, AIA, senior project manager; Arnold Swanborn, AIA, senior design architect; Tom Brakefield, AIA, project architect
Consultants: William J. Yang & Associates (mechanical and plumbing); Mia Lehrer & Associates (landscape)
Client: Los Angeles Unified School District

Size: 157,111 square feet
Cost: $58 million

Masonry: Orco Block
Metal/glass curtain wall: United States Aluminum
Glass: Viracon; Glas Pro
Skylights: Metcoe
Lighting: Lithonia Lighting (interior); WE-EF Lighting USA (exterior)
Plastic laminate: Pionite; Nevamar; Lamin-Art; Lamitech; Formica
Wood doors: Oshkosh Door Company
Carpet: Mohawk

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CASE STUDY: Roy Romer Middle School, North Hollywood, California, Johnson Fain

By Sarah Amelar

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Roy Romer Middle School, North Hollywood, California

North Hollywood’s Roy Romer Middle School presents a collage of red and purple synthetic plaster cladding and corrugated steel.
Photo: © Fotoworks/Benny Chan

Before the Roy Romer Middle School pushed open its doors on the first day of classes in September 2008, its section of North Hollywood represented a gaping hole in Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD)’s vast patchwork of educational facilities. This predominantly Latino neighborhood had been forced to ship its sixth-through-eighth graders to distant schools, running year-round. For LAUSD, severe, chronic overcrowding had become a fact of life.

But today, the Romer School — with its colorful cluster of rectilinear buildings — has 1,800 students, all from “within walking distance,” reports Principal John McLaughlin. “Except for special ed, no one’s bused in.” This change resulted from the massive construction and modernization program currently under way in Los Angeles, funded by $20.1 billion in bond measures (the largest capital project in the U.S.). Since 2001, it has created 80 new schools and upgraded hundreds of existing ones.

Like the program itself, North Hollywood’s new middle school owes much to Roy Romer, LAUSD’s superintendent from 2001 to 2006, who emerged, literally and figuratively, as a groundbreaker. A septuagenarian tractor salesman with a cowboy twang, he was Colorado’s governor before tackling this job, steering L.A.’s ambitious but troubled facilities initiative back on track. Engaging design architects from the outset, he interviewed them on his weekly public-access TV show, introducing the design strategies to a larger public forum.

Consistent with LAUSD’s current goals, the Romer School echoes local scale and density while positioning such facilities as gym and athletic fields for double duty as community amenities. Unlike the breathtakingly tight urban sites of many of its sister schools, the Romer — serving a student population 89 percent below the federally defined poverty level — has a generous 9.5-acre, L-shaped corner parcel. Creating 157,000 square feet of interior space, architects Johnson Fain deftly stacked the massing toward the site’s east side, fronting an arterial boulevard with linear three-story classroom/administration buildings. Bridging this commercial strip to the residential neighborhood along the campus’s west side, the massing steps down with smaller buildings — a gymnasium, library, and cafeteria, as well as multipurpose and media centers — opening toward the school’s “town square” and playing fields.

Though far more conventional than LAUSD structures by Coop Himmelb(l)au or Morphosis, the Romer School presents a collage of red and purple synthetic plaster cladding, corrugated steel, aluminum windows, and concrete blocks laid in two-tone stripes — all durable, low-maintenance, quasi-industrial, vandal-resistant materials.

Although the front gates get locked during class hours (and administrative offices sit strategically beside this entry portal), “the idea was to create a secure, self-contained campus that feels open, with long views out across the fields,” says architect Scott Johnson, FAIA. “We wanted to avoid the lockdown feel — the high walls and razor wire — common in schools these days.” Extensive glazing facing the schoolyard fosters a sense of openness and transparency, while courtyards between ground-floor classrooms allow outdoor learning. Reducing energy costs, Johnson Fain brought circulation corridors to the temperate outdoors, with steel-grate decks and translucent polycarbonate shading.

“Every square inch gets used, in ways you wouldn’t imagine,” says McLaughlin. On the downside, he concedes, “all the [outdoor] nooks and crannies pose security challenges — trouble has a habit of happening where we can’t see it.” Yet he values “how modern and bright the place is — so different from what everyone’s used to,” adding, “I constantly overhear parents proudly saying their kids go here.”


The colorful cluster of rectilinear buildings opens toward the school¹s ³town square² and playing fields. (top); The buildings use durable, low-maintenance materials such as concrete blocks laid in two-tone stripes. (2nd from top); The school sits on a generous, 9.5-acre, L-shaped corner parcel. (4th from top); The exterior¹s playful color scheme is carried over into interior spaces such as the multipurpose theater. (3rd from top); Courtyards between ground-floor classrooms allow for outdoor learning (bottom).
Photos: © Fotoworks/Benny Chan

The same durable, low maintenance, quasi-industrial materials that clad the buildings are used in interior spaces. (bottom); Long views out across the fields are possible from within the library as extensive glazing facing the schoolyard evokes openness and transparency (top).
Photos: © Fotoworks/Benny Chan

1) Faculty parking 2) Science center 3) Arts courtyard 4) Locker rooms 5) Gymnasium 6) Classroom Building A 7) Classroom Building B 8) Library/media center 9) Administration 10) Cafeteria/kitchen 11) Dining 12) Multipurpose theater