The long, narrow arrangement allowed light to enter both sides of the classroom, and it let breezes waft through and expel the heat, which was almost always a bigger concern than cold in the Texas and Oklahoma communities where CRS got its start.
Reconfigured School Spaces
The firm's designers concentrated on making the space, as well as the air, flow. Rather than have walls meet to form a tightly enclosed room — a traditional box — they frequently postponed the intersection of walls, and designed as Mies did, with planes that accentuated continuity, openness, and generosity of space.
As time went on, the firm increasingly used gabled roofs. These, too, emphasized continuity. The triangular gable-ends, when filled with glass, allowed light to come in and space to extend out. The architects realized that classrooms did not require horizontal ceilings: the top of the classroom could be the sloping underside of the roof, fully visible from below.
Some interior walls rose to standard height and then had a transparent partition of glass extend the rest of the way, from the top of the wall to the roof. The occupants enjoyed an expansive, unconfined space, spilling beyond the room's boundaries.
Flat roofs were chosen for other CRS schools, with big overhangs to deflect sun and rain. A notable example was the Belaire Elementary School in San Angelo, Texas, which had a circle of classrooms beneath a deeply overhanging rectangular roof. At its outer edge, the roof was supported by the slimmest of metal columns, accentuating the feeling of lightness.
When the firm eventually started building two-story schools, part of a second-floor block of classrooms might float above an outdoor area where youngsters played.
Corridors became places for student activities. Study carrels were sometimes placed along a corridor's edge. Open storage units for books and other articles served to separate the corridor from an adjacent gathering area. If the corridor were made extra wide, as in Norman (Oklahoma) High School in 1951, it became a social center.
In warm climates, the corridors might be out-of-doors under a simple roof — an economical solution that allowed designers to allocate more of the budget to purposes more critical than circulation.
One of the firm's influential early projects — Central High School in San Angelo, Texas, in 1955 — took openness at the high school level to new lengths. Instead of gathering all the activities into a single structure, Central High spread out to form a campus with 13 buildings in all.
Forms that Soar
In Tyler, Texas, a member of the faculty committee considering a new gymnasium remarked, "wouldn't it be nice if we could have an indoor play court as nice as an outdoor one?" From that suggestion sprang an entirely open gym under a ridged steel frame in Tyler in 1954 and, a year later, a domed, glass-walled gym for St. Joseph's Academy in Brownsville, Texas.
The domed gymnasium obtained an abundance of natural light while forming a simple and graceful silhouette. In 1962, CRS designed Public School 219 in New York's Borough of Queens — a demonstration school for Queens College and showpiece for the 1964 World's Fair.
Structural engineer Ed Nye gave it a domed roof and left its ribbed structure exposed on the interior, resulting in an airy, flexible open-plan school where as many as four classrooms could be combined into a large, loft-like space for team teaching.
Controlling Climate and Form
The firm was not averse to changing course when conditions changed or new possibilities appeared. After mastering cross ventilation and natural lighting in the late 1940s and 1950s, CRS made Central High in San Angelo the first fully air-conditioned public school in Texas. The building's sealed exterior pushed school design in a new direction.
As mechanical air-conditioning became standard, as schools became bigger, and as CRS moved to the high school and then the college level, the buildings shifted from being light and sometimes playful to being more formal and sculptural.
Frank Lawyer, in particular, was known for the sculptural approach he brought to institutions like Cypress Junior College in 1970 in southern California. Administrators wanted a campus that would be economical yet permanent, so Lawyer chose concrete as the predominant material, and shaped the buildings with deep recesses to invest the concrete with character.
In contrast to some of CRS's early work, Cypress hewed closer to the work of Eero Saarinen, who was then the reigning master of expressive, uniquely shaped buildings. A commuter school, Cypress needed plenty of parking, so the campus was bilevel, with vehicular traffic at ground level and with pedestrians using a raised plaza that connected all the buildings.
CRS had no interest in developing a homogeneous style for its work. "We didn't sit down and say we want to out-Wright Frank Lloyd Wright or we want to do Richard Neutra in spades," CRS principal Charles Lawrence noted. The esthetic chosen for a project varied with the team, the assignment, the place, and the climate. Lawyer called it "just logical architecture," rooted in the project's needs.
Olin Hall, a science building designed in 1960 for Colorado College in Colorado Springs, had what the architects termed an "exoskeleton." The utilities were stuffed into thick outer walls largely devoid of windows, and the four foot- (1.2-meter) deep utility chase along the perimeter gave the college the utmost flexibility for positioning and repositioning laboratories within the interior.
Three years later, the firm designed Larsen Hall for Harvard's Graduate School of Education. It was a tall building featuring a continuous brick skin with irregularly placed windows some protruding, some deeply recessed as in the Whitney Museum of Art in New York by Marcel Breuer, which was built not long afterward.
The architects described their design partly as a quest for a "feeling of permanence" and a reaction against curtain walls, which they then saw as being "dated circa 1945-1960." Flow of space was less important than a strong enveloping form — the monumental object.
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The late Jonathan King was a partner at CRS in the 1970s, a professor emeritus of architecture at the University of Michigan, and director of the CRS Center for Leadership and Management in the Design and Construction Industry at Texas A&M University. Philip Langdon is a New Haven, Connecticut-based freelance writer on architecture and urban planning and a former senior editor of Progressive Architecture.
Photos and excerpts from The CRS Team and the Business of Architecture, copyright © 2002. Published by Texas A&M University Press. Used with permission. Available in hardcover ($39.95). To order, call toll-free 1-800-826-8911 (8-5 M-F) or go to www.tamu.edu/upress. Also available at Amazon.com.
Central High School in San Angelo, Texas was designed by CRS as a campus consisting of 13 separate buildings. Constructed in 1955, it was Texas's first fully air-conditioned public school.
Photo: Uric Meisel
Natural lighting was the big design idea for the glass-walled gymnasium at St. Joseph's Academy in Brownsville, Texas.
Photo: Roland Chatham
Public School 219, the "dome school," in Flushing Queens, New York, was an open-plan facility designed for maximum flexibility.
Photo: Texas A&M University Press
Cypress Junior College in Cypress, California, built in 1970, reflected the influence of Frank Lawyer.
Photo: Texas A&M University Press
The laboratory wing of Colorado College's Olin Hall of Science, built in 1961. A utility chase along the perimeter maximized the flexibility of laboratory locations.
Photo: Rondal Partridge
The Roy E. Larsen Hall, built in 1965 for Harvard University's Graduate School of Education in Cambridge, Massachusetts, featured sculptured brick walls to complement the old brick prevalent on campus.
Photo: Texas A&M University Press
The CRS Team and the Business of Architecture.
Image: Texas A&M University Press
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