Photo © Steve Hall / Hedrich Blessing

CASE STUDY: Gary Comer College Prep, Chicago, Illinois, John Ronan Architects

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By Joann Gonchar, AIA

Architect: John Ronan Architects
CLIENT: Comer Science & Education Foundation
Size: 45,000 sq. ft.

Exterior cladding: Apolic (composite panels); Centria (corrugated stainless steel)
Glazing: Oldcastle BuildingEnvelope; Viracon; Arch Aluminum & Glass
Skylights: Super Sky

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"I wanted something fresh, young, and optimistic," says architect John Ronan about the chartreuse facade panels on his recently completed Gary Comer College Prep School in the Grand Crossing neighborhood of Chicago's South Side. Although the color may seem improbably bright, the high school, along with an equally bold youth center that sits at the opposite end of a parking lot, energizes the otherwise drab surroundings, characterized by vacant lots, warehouses, and humble wood-frame and brick single-family homes.

Like the nearby youth center, completed in 2006 and also designed by Ronan [architectural record, February 2008, page 114], the school was built by the science and education-focused nonprofit organization created by the late Gary Comer, founder of mail-order clothing retailer Lands' End, who grew up in the neighborhood. Run by Chicago charter school operator Noble Street, Comer Prep admitted its first students in the fall of 2008, holding classes in the youth center before moving into the newer building this past September, with 500 freshmen, sophomores, and juniors.

Although the school now has its own purpose-built home, it uses many of the youth center's facilities daily, including the cafeteria and the combined auditorium and gymnasium. This sharing allows the newer building to be "lean," says Ronan. The steel-frame and precast-concrete structure encloses about 45,000 square feet for a population that is expected to top out next fall at 600 students in grades 9 through 12, almost all from the South Side.

The school may be compact, but it feels open and full of daylight. The lobby, for example, is a welcoming double-height space with a fully glazed wall that provides a visual connection to an adjacent plaza and to the youth center. University insignias incorporated into the wall graphics put Noble Street's goal of readying students for college front and center in the mind of anyone who enters the school.

Beyond the lobby, two floors of classrooms wrap a core with bathrooms and offices. A skylight above the intervening corridor and a slim, two-story void allow daylight to reach the lower level's circulation space.

The biggest contributor to the feeling of spaciousness is the configuration of the classrooms. Each has two glazed walls - an interior one facing the corridor and another looking out onto the street, but veiled on the exterior by a corrugated and perforated stainless scrim. The scrim performs multiple functions. It continues a fence, made of the same material that runs in front of the parking lot between the school and youth center, tying the buildings together visually and physically. It also serves as a shading device, helping to mitigate heat gain while providing students with almost unobstructed views of the outside and allowing a diffuse daylight into the rooms. Finally, in a sobering reminder of the neighborhood's tough realities, it camouflages the windows, preventing students from becoming targets of drive-by shootings.

The youth center gallery - a long room enclosed on two sides by glass - provided the inspiration for this layout. The space was a favorite with faculty and pupils, and not because of an aesthetic preference for transparency: The interior glass walls "give any passerby a look at the performance of the teacher and the engagement of the students," explains James Troupis, school principal.

Just a few months into Comer Prep's first school year in its new home, it is too soon to know the effect of the building on academic performance. But Troupis's statement indicates how thoroughly the architecture has become part of the school's character, not only reflecting, but also shaping, its culture.


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