When Buildings Speak

When Buildings Speak

Do you know what your buildings are saying?

To paraphrase pop siren Olivia Newton-John, “Let me see your buildings talk.” This is the mantra of parents and their teenagers when they first set eyes on a campus. During high season, dozens of families a day visit a typical independent school or college campus with prospective students in tow, and their first impression often is the most telling and enduring one. What these visitors see through the car window are buildings and grounds, and the questions on their minds are urgent, even breathless: What kind of place is this? What are the people like? What do they value? Would I fit in?

Ideally, this initial panoramic view is akin to a well-crafted cover letter that reveals the essence of all that is to follow. It should have allure and contain inspiring details.

The first question, therefore, that school officials should ask themselves when contemplating campus improvements is, “How can our architecture help to tell our story?” Make no mistake, buildings talk, individually and in the aggregate. The trick is to get them to say all the right things.

Making Music Transparent

At the Hotchkiss School in Connecticut, the music program was far more important to the school than its aging, subterranean facilities implied. The quality of student performances was consistently excellent, but except for the occasional above-ground concerts in the school chapel, the musicians were out of sight to visitors and students alike. If any story of music at Hotchkiss was being told, it was the wrong story. So plans were undertaken to renovate an existing drama theater into a venue for musical performances, and expand it to provide practice rooms and a rehearsal hall.

The architect, headed by a lapsed violinist and intermittent piano player, were able to demonstrate that the high cost of renovations could better be invested in a new, all-glass music pavilion added onto the existing theater. It would more clearly express the importance of music and the arts at the school.
The result is a performance hall that not only doubles as an uplifting rehearsal space, but also puts music front and center. No one today is left wondering whether music plays an important role at Hotchkiss. In addition to elevating the arts and connecting them to students plying the corridors of the main building, the new centrally located facility has become a welcoming place for the surrounding community, which is invited to enjoy performances by the students as well as by visiting musicians.

Beyond its functional and symbolic role, the transparent music pavilion serves as an arresting addition to the school’s profile, adding a sense of visual diversity while gently mediating between the modern building to which it is attached and the school’s predominantly Georgian campus. Modern at first blush, the form and detailing evoke classical notions of a Georgian style conservatory. Its transparent glass walls also embrace the surrounding wooded hills and a nearby lake, highlighting another of the campus’ attractive assets and making nature an inspiring muse for the musicians. Now, the school is narrating clearly the story about its music program that it had wanted to tell all along.

Knitting a School Together

Elsewhere in New England, Buckingham Browne & Nichols, an independent day school, needed to expand, but also realized that it had to do a better job of simply being itself. It was known for its serious, yet unpretentious blend of academics and the arts, but its existing upper-school campus consisted of a prosaic assortment of rudimentary buildings organized without a sense of place. Students hurried from building to building without being tempted to stop, socialize or smell the roses. The campus did not reflect the distinct character and personality of the school, or do anything to enhance the vitality of its academic programs.

The answer was to design the expansion along a circulation spine intermingled with social spaces, inside and out, wrapped around a protected courtyard. The new additions weave in and out of the existing school buildings to enhance the sense of a diverse community. The circular plan and large windows display the bustle of activity throughout the building. A commons on the first floor is the heart of the school, where students eat, hang out and surf the Internet. Second-floor glass walls open to give the courtyard the lively feeling of a European piazza in warm weather. Students gathering outside can see inside and vice verse, enhancing a sense of togetherness.

A new entry facing a busy urban boulevard introduces the school to the world with a warm, welcoming gesture. The architecture is designed deliberately to be habitable–not so precious that students are afraid to use it, and not so prosaic that no one cares about it.

 

Wanted: New Campus Icon

The challenge presented by a proposed campus makeover for St. Mark’s School of Texas, which called for demolition of three smaller buildings and construction of two large ones, was responding to the school’s existing aesthetic while creating a genuine but altogether new campus icon and sense of place. In addition to providing bigger classroom spaces and departmental consolidation, the project’s goal was to establish a strong central quadrangle, and, to position the larger of the two new buildings as an architectural centerpiece that would, in spite of its newness, exude a sense of the school’s heritage.

Where the new buildings were sited was crucial because that alone would affect the look and feel of the overall campus. A previous reconfiguration had made glare a problem for those entering the school grounds, and the new structures would remedy this, as well as mask an existing and less-than-distinguished gymnasium building and improve campus circulation. Centennial Hall, the larger of the new structures, is crowned by an expansive and iconic dome that presides over the comings and goings of students. Brick was retained for continuity, but small changes in the plane of its windows provided a subtle distinction from the existing buildings and helped to express its mass. The east and west angles of the octagonal building reflect morning and afternoon sun, brightening its look as well as the campus overall. New trees also reflect sunlight onto the quadrangle’s facades like bright green lightshades. The result is a new air of luminescence and a well-defined center for the school.

With its predecessors gone and soon forgotten, Centennial Hall has become St. Mark School’s wellspring of architectural character and tradition.

Progressing into the Past

In observation of its 100th anniversary and in response to its growth to 300 students, the Pomfret School in Connecticut planned a new “Centennial Building.” This edifice would include art studios as well as carpentry, metal, and welding shops, classrooms and a 125-seat auditorium. It would not be built in a vacuum, but in the context of a comprehensive reevaluation of the school’s academic infrastructure.

The campus plan for Pomfret originally was established by Ernest Flagg (1857-1947), a prominent architect of the Beaux Arts School who designed many New York City and U.S. Naval Academy buildings. Situated atop a hill with expansive views to the west, the campus that Flagg designed features a row of brick dormitories connected with smaller pavilions dug into the hill. This created a strong north-south orientation, taking advantage of the views on one side and presenting a public face to adjacent road on the other.

As with many well-laid plans, Flagg’s had been abandoned in more recent campus development, but the core of his concept remained viable. Other issues that fell into the category of “stuff happens over time” included long-standing shrubbery that had grown up to block desirable sight lines and overall views.

Pomfret’s 21st-century master plan, which included Centennial Hall, was built on the original DNA of Flagg’s concept, with a new twist: creating two campus sectors, an academic “downtown” and an outlying, but walk-able residential “neighborhood.” One of Flagg's original residence hall buildings was relocated from the center of campus to its northern edge, establishing the residential sector. Centennial Hall was built in its place and on center with the school’s main academic building, thus anchoring downtown. The east-west axis formed by these two buildings started to define a quadrangle, which could be added to in the future.

In the spirit of New England town greens, this outdoor space was reconfigured by removing overgrown shrubs and planting grand trees. Across the green, a new Alumni House, a white shingle clapboard building, helps to frame this new outdoor space.

Buildings, which recently had been constructed and located ad hoc, now were going up as part of a deliberate and coherent plan. In architectural math, the whole is greater than the sum of the square footage. The new buildings make the school truer to itself, more connected with its roots as well as to the future.

Holahan works at Centerbrook Architects of Connecticut, the firm that designed the projects above, among many others on independent school campuses.[email protected].

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