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Sites Unseen in Education Design (with Related Video)

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The conventional wisdom in the United States assumes that colleges and universities exist on campuses, whereas most other schools are standalone buildings. Of course, exceptions exist, notably, independent schools on suburban and rural campuses. But most urban independent schools and most public schools, from preschool to grade 12, are buildings. When a school needs to expand, perhaps to add 10 classrooms, an architect is hired, and a new wing or small addition might be added to the mass of the existing building. Unfortunately, institutions that follow this procedure are missing important opportunities.

In terms of architectural traditions, the formal function of most so-called "building" schools is as objects in space—that is, a solid building mass surrounded by an open area. In some settings, the building itself might act as the edge of an adjacent street. A campus tradition emphasizes groupings of buildings that define outdoor spaces, such as quadrangles. In this tradition, the building design has a responsibility to enclose indoor space and simultaneously define the edge of adjacent outdoor space.

Recently, the word "sustainability" has become popular. Sustainability refers to designs that take maximum advantage of natural features, such as climate and topography, to increase the adaptability and energy efficiency of a building; simultaneously, a sustainable approach seeks to have the least negative impact on the environment.

Whether an academic building is part of a campus or is simply a single building on a site, it can be situated to define outdoor space and to relate intelligently to the manmade and natural environments. For instance:

•Academic buildings often are used as the defining edges of academic quadrangles.

•Academic buildings not part of a campus still can relate clearly to the patterns of surrounding development. For example, a school building could employ the same setbacks and building heights as its neighbors. A school building might be situated to define the edge of a town green or park.

•Academic buildings can be situated to relate to natural features, such as the slope of a site, views and local climate. In the case of climate, buildings can be situated to relate to solar orientation, as well as to prevailing breezes.

Site-specific benefits

Many schools demonstrate how understanding a site can enhance a design:

•The Pembroke Hill School is a preK-to-12 independent school that serves about 1,200 students on two campuses in Kansas City, Mo.—the Wornall Campus for preschool and lower school children, and the Ward Parkway Campus for middle school and upper school students.

The Early Childhood Building on the Wornall Campus was constructed on a site that had been a parking lot. The 12-acre campus was reconfigured to accommodate this building. In the process, vehicle parking and the entrances for automobile pickup and dropoff were reconfigured and rationalized on both the north and south edges of the site. The most important objective was creating a safe pedestrian precinct in the center of the campus for young children to play freely, without danger from automobile traffic. The Early Childhood Building plays an important role in defining two open spaces: the main entry quadrangle on the south side of the campus, and the central green, an open play area for children of all ages. Because the building is designed as a courtyard or cloister with single-loaded corridors, it also defines a protected outdoor play space for preschool children.

•Manhattanville College is an undergraduate institution serving about 1,700 students on a 90-acre campus in Purchase, N.Y. The campus was constructed in the early 1950s on the Whitlaw Reid Estate, which was owned by the family that published the New York Herald Tribune. Reid Castle, a 19th-century McKim, Mead & White confection, still serves as the central landmark building on this campus. The original campus was planned as one grandiose, elongated quadrangle focused on Reid Castle.

The new Berman Student Center is situated east of Reid Castle and, together with an adjacent residence hall and dining hall, creates a new, smaller-scale quadrangle facing uphill toward the castle. The new quadrangle is one full level above the grade of the entrance to the building. Because of this change in grade, the building serves as a retaining wall. The new student center also serves as the official gateway to the campus, providing a diagonal view uphill to the tower of Reid Castle. The gold LEED-certified building is configured to create outdoor space, and is sustainable and energy-efficient; photovoltaic panels generate a significant portion of its electricity.

•The new Peekskill (N.Y.) Middle School and community center were constructed recently to replace a 1920s high school facility that had been converted to a middle school. The new building accommodates between 800 and 1,000 students in grades 6 to 8. The urban site changes grade about 80 feet between the uphill eastern residential street (Ringgold Street) and the lower western commercial street (Washington Avenue).

The design of the middle school building is determined largely by the layout of the city. The site fits appropriately into the neighborhood of late 19th-century frame houses. It appears to be four stories high from the commercial street, but only two stories high from the residential street. The school building functions essentially as a retaining wall near the western edge of the site. On the uphill side (to the east), it creates a new city green that functions as a playing field. On the west side are two new courtyards: one to enter the building and the other between the two houses of the middle school.

Although the old building was an enormous object in space, the new building serves as the defining edge of the city green. This green responds directly to the city plan grid and to the fabric of the residential neighborhood.

•The Hackley School, situated on 280 acres in Tarrytown, N.Y., is an independent co-educational boarding and day school, serving about 900 students in grades K to 12. The new Kathleen Allen Lower School building for K to 4 students replaces the original elementary school, and is situated to define part of the western edge of Akin Common, an elongated green space oriented toward north-south. The building itself is configured as an open U, facing south and defining a protected play courtyard with an advantageous microclimate. This courtyard is surrounded by single-loaded corridors that serve the classrooms and other spaces. The arrangement creates beneficial solar gain in the cooler weather, as well as easy cross ventilation in the warmer months.

The Hackley lower school is part of a campus arrangement of several interconnected outdoor spaces defined by edge buildings. The lower school itself forms part of the western edge of Akin Common and also creates its own protected courtyard. The lower school, part of the campus core of the overall Hackley School complex, contributes to a pedestrian zone uninterrupted by roadways and parking.

•Historically, the Hawthorne Elementary School has been the favorite building in the Mount Pleasant (N.Y.) School District. It is a 1920s neoclassic brick building that accommodates K to 3 students. The plan is T-shaped; the gym and auditorium are perpendicular to the double-loaded classroom corridor. In the 1950s, a wing was added in the stripped-down warehouse manner of that era. The original building and the 1950s wing created an elongated rectangle, punctuated by the auditorium and gymnasium on the rear and uphill side of the building.

In order to expand the building, a new wing was situated uphill and behind the original building, parallel to the original elongated rectangle and connected back to the 1950s wing by an open colonnade, which contains a closed corridor at the upper level. Together, the new wing, the 1950s wing, and the original 1920s building create a surrounded inner courtyard, which is used as a playground for the kindergarten classrooms.

The building has been transformed from an awkward, elongated rectangle to a coherent, multilevel building that defines an important and useful outdoor courtyard.

Compelling sites

In each of the above examples, the site is compelling. Most schools are works in progress; they offer many opportunities to correct the mistakes of our predecessors and adjust buildings so they relate more directly to their settings. The argument for site-based planning:

•Buildings should relate to the natural setting: topography, solar orientation, microclimate.

•Buildings are part of a manmade cultural context.

•Buildings, when sited appropriately, can create useful outdoor spaces.

•The combination of designed indoor and outdoor spaces can foster community interaction.

•A school designed in a manner specific to its site will be more understandable and more legible for its users.

Gisolfi is senior partner of Peter Gisolfi Associates, Hastings-on-Hudson, N.Y., a firm of architects and landscape architects in Hastings-On-Hudson, N.Y., and New Haven, Conn. He is chairman of the Spitzer School of Architecture at the City College of New York, and is the author of the book, Finding the Place of Architecture in the Landscape. He can be reached at pgisolfi@petergisolfiassociates.com.

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Peter Gisolfi discusses the concepts in this article with a project at Tarrytown College.

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