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DESIGN TREND: contextual buildings

Architecture that is respectful of its physical surroundings can enhance the experience and comprehension of place. Several of this year’s award winners used an understanding of place to educate both occupants and observers about the immediate physical environment.

The Indian Community School engages itself in the topography of its site; it is almost as if the building and the curve of the land are a single contour. As it rides the gentle slope, it leaves intact the prairie grasses, wetlands and forest that are integral to its mission: to give urban children a sense of connection to their Native American heritage—and to their tribal lands in northern Wisconsin. The design uses transparency to integrate interior and exterior spaces, creating connections and vistas that bring the natural environment indoors, into the learning process.


Environmental Education Visitor Activity Center (National Park Service, PA), Bohlin Cywinski Jackson

One measure of understanding and respecting place is how well a building performs in its encounter with natural forces. The Environmental Education Visitor Activity Center interacts with its Pennsylvania forest setting in dynamic ways. The naturally ventilated and lighted activity space has glass walls on three sides and a wooden ceiling that sweeps upward toward the sky. In the winter, it serves as a passive solar collector that maximizes solar heat gain; in the summer, it is shaded by the overhangs and porches of its large shed roof.

Arizona State University Polytechnic Academy Complex (Mesa, AZ), RSP Architects, Ltd., LakeFlato Architects

The Arizona State University Polytechnic Academy Complex transformed an abandoned desert airbase into a shaded college campus that invites walking and outdoor gatherings. Buildings arranged with their backs to the wind protect courtyards and atriums from harsh sun and monsoon rain, as well as wind and dust. Landscaping, strategic shading systems and high gabion walls filled with desert rock block the extreme western sun. Durable, regional materials that patina gracefully in local conditions and low-maintenance native landscaping create a practical and visually appealing learning environment that celebrates the desert landscape around it.


Camino Nuevo High School (Los Angeles, CA), Daly Genik

Camino Nuevo High School also reflects its physical environment, but it is an entirely built environment. This project derives its sense of place from the cacophonous traffic that swirls all around its long, narrow site in an old commercial district in Los Angeles. The two-story classroom building that buffers the campus on the south echoes the curve of the street; its corrugated metal cladding with its vivid yellow patterns, evocative of the works of Piet Mondrian, reflect the asphalt world around it, with its yellow center lines and traffic signs. At night, the school’s electronic billboard makes its own contribution to the visual complexity of the urban streetscape. Within the walls, designers took advantage of the mild climate to organize the school around a central courtyard, creating a sheltered place for students that is an island, but not a place apart.


Chicago International Charter School Ralph Ellison Campus (Chicago, IL), OWPP

The task facing the designers of the Chicago International Charter School Ralph Ellison Campus was to renovate and expand a derelict, but imposing, neo-classical elementary school to create a vibrant learning environment for urban high school students. The designers of Canada’s National Ballet School faced a similar challenge: to create a large, new urban campus while preserving two small, nineteenth-century heritage buildings. Both design teams chose complete differentiation between old and new—and both found ways to juxtapose traditional and modern elements effectively.


Avon Old Farms School Beatson Performing Arts Center (Avon, CT), The SLAM Collaborative

The architecture and materials of the Avon Old Farms School Beatson Performing Arts Center reflect the 1920s campus in which it is nested, whose designers found their inspiration in England’s Cotswolds. Brick and custom-made cast stone replicate the random stone patterns of the historical campus buildings. The performing arts center was built into a slope to minimize its impact on the “village green” and to balance its height with that of the adjacent student center. The building also acknowledges its natural setting: the foyer off the entry tower and adjacent terraces offer spectacular views across the rolling hills of New England.

Project Information

Indian Community School (Milwaukie, WI), Antoine Predock Architect, PC

Environmental Education Visitor Activity Center (National Park Service, PA), Bohlin Cywinski Jackson

Arizona State University Polytechnic Academy Complex (Mesa, AZ), RSP Architects, Ltd., LakeFlato Architects

Camino Nuevo High School (Los Angeles, CA), Daly Genik

Chicago International Charter School Ralph Ellison Campus (Chicago, IL), OWPP

Canada’s National Ballet School (Toronto, ON), Kuwabara Payne McKenna Blumberg Architects

Avon Old Farms School Beatson Performing Arts Center (Avon, CT), The SLAM Collaborative

 

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