Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Award winning school design

The Phillis Wheatley Elementary School is by far one of the most compelling monuments of the era. It is the culmination of a series of design innovations produced by Charles R. Colbert, one of the primary instigators of change in the public school facilities.*

Colbert describes how the formal structure of the Phillis Wheatley School was informed by the desire to create additional play space for the children on a relatively compact urban site.

“The city building code was interpreted to allow Wheatley to be a one-floor structure. Because of this decision, the design could combine the advantages of an exposed steel structure, without fireproofing, while concentrating its reduced weight on pile supports. The entire classroom structure was raised above grade to allow the enlargement of a diminutive play area and to create a play yard. Conventional post-and-beam construction would have created a field of hazardous columns throughout the play area while the use of the full effective depth of the cantilevered steel trusses eliminated most of these obstructions. The entire classroom structure was housed within twelve shop fabricated trusses and the twenty-two classrooms were located within this simple floor-to-ceiling structural envelope. Secondary steel joists spanned from truss to truss and supported the horizontal roof membrane, while floors consisted of six inch deep double tongue and groove wood decking that spanned between trusses. The truss, better recognized in bridges, thus became more than the support for a roof system. This old and widely used structural assembly allowed efficient shop fabrication, simple assembly, and a reduced job site construction period. The raison d’etre, to free the play yard, developed into something more."**

The result was stunning. Airy, light-filled classrooms, elevated from the street, gave the effect of a modern tree-house, an appropriate and poetic setting for a child’s classroom. The elevation of the Phillis Wheatley School protected the classrooms from the post-Katrina inundation of the city. Sadly the building is a victim of decades of neglect. The facility does require some intervention. The steel trusses could certainly benefit from a coat of paint. Also, the clear glass was replaced long ago with cheaper opaque plexi-glass panels. Improvements in glass and automated HVAC make it possible to renovate Wheatley to perform better than originally.

Both Phillis Wheatley and Thomy Lafon Elementary Schools were built on raised piers that saved them from the floodwaters after Hurricane Katrina. The open space underneath the elevated structure helps cool the building in our climate. This structural conceit is borrowed from the French Colonial tradition. Breezes naturally cool an elevated structure. In the case of Wheatley and Lafon, the elevated structures also created a wealth of covered play space, protected from the elements. Both schools were built with a sensitivity to local environmental conditions. The exterior walls were glass in Wheatley, mostly glass in Lafon. This gave the children new perspectives, as well as an abundance of natural light and ventilation. It is tragic that so many of the later generation of school buildings were designed as nearly windowless detention cells.*** Colbert encouraged his fellow architects to consider the “emotional and spiritual needs of children” in their design of school buildings.****

The George Washington Carver Junior-Senior High School was praised as a model school for the nation. Integrating a junior and senior high school on the same campus as an elementary school allowed the schools to share some common facilities.***** The striking design of the auditorium with its concrete vault and hinged bridge-like buttresses helped establish Curtis and Davis as architects on the international stage. Progressive Architecture’s recognition of this school with its highest design award in 1958 is a tribute to the architectural quality of Carver High School as well as the design reforms set in place by Charles Colbert.******

* Colbert previously designed McDonogh 36 / Mahalia Jackson Elementary School (1954) and the Hoffman Elementary School (1954). Sol Rosenthal was the architect of record. Hoffman uses a truss structure to span the roof and McDonogh 36 uses a truss structure to span an elevated corridor.
** Idea: the Shaping Force, Charles R. Colbert, pp. 73-74.
*** See: Cohen High School
**** “Today’s Criteria of Design for School Buildings,” 18 Talks, Charles R. Colbert, pp. 117
***** Curtis and Davis also designed Helen Sylvania Edwards Elementary School on the site. Edwards Elementary was approved for demolition in Dember 2007. See: http://blog.nola.com/news_impact/2007/12/masterplan122007.gif
****** Colbert first articulated the idea of the “school village” in 1952. Idea: The Shaping Force, p. 48.

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