Two Compact Urban Schools
Shopping for Land
The Mendez School, designed by LPA in association with Francis+Anderson, is the first to be built under the Space-Saver Program. It is located on a joint-use parcel of land the school district bought at a bargain price from a shopping center developer. To maximize the space available for playing fields, the architects put the school building on top of the shopping center's parking structure.
Making this site work required careful handling of all the building's adjacencies: parking garage, shopping center, and community.
A primary design goal was to eliminate the parking structure from the students' direct experience of their school. To do this, the architects took the ground plane up to the level of the school.
A grand stair some 200 feet (60 meters) wide leads from the arrival point to the school entry. The scale of the stair makes it feel like an earth element, not a building. At the top, extensive decks and pedestrian spaces continue the feeling of "ground" right to the school doors.
A serpentine ramp beside the stair provides wheelchair access to the deck. Once inside, wheelchair users navigate level changes with elevators.
Both the school district and the shopping center management stipulated that there be no connection between the school and the shopping center. Thus the two buildings stand back-to-back, each facing its own street. Nominally, the two buildings share a site; experientially, they have nothing in common.
When the school was first proposed, it encountered opposition from the community. Neighbors were concerned about the school overlooking their homes, and the voices of hundreds of students ruining their peace. A series of community meetings held by LPA provided a forum for identifying neighbors' concerns, and addressing them.
The expansive decks that define a new ground plane for the school also reduce the angle of view into the neighborhood. Mesh screens and sound walls along school walkways further protect neighbors' privacy.
Working with the unique configuration of the site, the school is organized into parallel linear blocks. These blocks express the building's three main programmatic elements: core academic clusters organized around student and teacher work spaces, public facilities, and support program spaces. Each is expressed as a distinct building within the overall composition.
Spaces between the blocks become pedestrian "streets" within the school. A student project will develop the main street between the classroom and library blocks into a time line of significant events in the community.
The parallel blocks escalate away from residential bungalows along the northern boundary, culminating in a three-story block containing the academic clusters. Designed to suggest a steel-structured ship floating above the deck, this form represents the students' educational voyage, and gives the school an identity in the community.
A Canadian Solution
As with the Mendez School, the success of the South Building of the Emily Carr Institute of Art and Design, by Patkau Architects in association with Toby Russell Buckwell Architects, depends on its attitude to its neighbors, and on a spatial organization that responds ingeniously to an idiosyncratic site.
Before the construction of the South Building in 1994, ECIAD's campus was scattered among three sites in Vancouver. To consolidate its program, ECIAD secured permission to build on a parking lot across the street from its main site on Granville Island. Permission stipulated that the new building include parking for 255 cars.
On Granville Island, the neighbors include warehouses converted into artists' studios, pedestrian-scale single-story shops, and a public market, an industrial-scale concrete plant, and, of course, the requisite parking garage, which subsurface conditions prevented the architects from burying.
The South Building consists of three main forms: the main body of the building, which contains the parkade on the first three floors, a narrow slot along the facade, which masks the parkade and connects the building to the street, and a tower, which contains the elevator.
The materials of the building — concrete, glass, and corrugated metal siding — suggest a contemporary warehouse appropriate to the industrial history of the site and rugged enough to hold its own with its concrete plant neighbor.
The entry to the building is what makes it work at a pedestrian scale. The massing of the building's three forms creates a small recess at street level. Bicycle racks, stairs, windows, plantings, and multiple entries animate this outdoor vestibule, giving the college an active street presence.
Like the Mendez School, the ECIAD South Building is configured in long strips parallel to the street. But where the Mendez design carries the ground plane up to the building, the ECIAD design adopts an opposite strategy. It deploys a narrow slot of space along the front of the site, masking the parkade, and bringing the building to the street.
This slot is occupied by the library, which serves both college and community. The library's windows on the street, with reading desks pulled up to the inside, a display window at the corner of the street-side vestibule, and doors opening onto the vestibule are critical to the building's successful engagement with the street.
From the street-side vestibule, steps rise through a narrow slot between library and parkade to a sky-lit interior two flights up. The steps divide into easy stages. At each landing, doors and windows suggest intriguing, inter-linked spaces. Visitors scarcely notice that they are climbing three stories to get into this building, much less that they are passing a parking garage to do it.
Inside, a skylit atrium runs the full length of the building, connecting its richly complex spaces. To one side of the atrium, offices and seminar rooms open off a gangway into the slot the library occupies at a lower level. To the other side, lecture theaters and design studios extend across the parkade roof. Stairs, ramps, and passages weave through the atrium, bringing to this building a sense of discovery and animation.
Both the Mendez School and the Emily Carr Institute's South Building succeed as new schools and fit compactly into challenging sites in their existing urban context. And at the same time, they each ingeniously coexist with that potential bane of the urban fabric, the parking garage.
Katharine Logan is an assistant editor of ArchitectureWeek.