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DESIGN TREND: social and cultural significance

This year’s award winning projects manifested a trend toward understanding a building as part of a larger system comprising both cultural and natural forces. Social significance is about understanding the people for whom a building is designed. It is a matter of respect: truly listening to people—and looking around at where they live.

It is also a matter of place. What is the problem? For whom is it being solved? The Indian Community School is an example of solving the problem in the context of culture: the way it weaves itself into the natural setting; the use of natural materials, such as stone, wood and copper, that have cultural significance; and the integration of forms that reflect the mythology and cultural perspective of native peoples. Because several tribes would use the school, the architects found ways to address a broad range of mythologies in a variety of spaces.

The farm vernacular of Staples Elementary School pays homage to the community’s agrarian roots and ensures the continuation in community life of the former working farm on that site, a place many residents knew as children. The design is also respectful of the young children who would attend the school. It sought to minimize the impact of the large public spaces to achieve a more child-friendly scale, and it uses shapes and colors that are familiar to children because they reflect the rural architecture of their community.

Staples Elementary School (Easton, CT), The SLAM Collaborative

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

In a similar way, but in a very different place, Camino Nuevo High School celebrates the activity of the Los Angeles streetscape. It is a string-bean site, a long narrow island in a sea of traffic; but the school makes an elegant statement along the street, softening the edge with a curve and vegetation that will grow to shade the building. The yellow panels on the elevation pick up the syncopated rhythms of the city in a way reminiscent of the Gershwin brothers’ “I Got Rhythm” or Piet Mondrian’s “Broadway Boogie Woogie.” The simple, but striking, gray and yellow palette brings order to the visual clutter, knitting together a center stripe here, a right-turn sign there, a passing school bus, the Holiday Inn sign. The walls along the street are designed to buffer the school from both sun and noise, creating a protected oasis for learning. At the same time, the design uses transparency to reflect the school’s aspirations and achievements to the community.

The way the glass towers of Canada’s National Ballet School rise from the urban street is metaphoric. Dance is the celebration of the body’s capacity for flight, for transforming the constraints of gravity into art. And dance has a kind of transparency that echoes the studio towers: a dancer performs within a transparent envelope defined by outstretched limbs, which is larger than the space the body actually occupies.

The ballet school’s cultural significance is more than symbolic. The stacked glass studios bring dance to the street, engaging neighbors and passersby with both the institution and the art. For those inside, the building’s organization and transparency encourage social integration and support the Healthy Dancer Program, which promotes healthy life practices (physical, psychological and spiritual), as well as excellence in dance training. One example is the central location of food services, to encourage healthy eating habits as well as socializing.

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

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

The problem to be solved at the Chicago International Charter School Ralph Ellison Campus was how to renovate and expand a neo-classical building, pulling it forward in time to serve older students in a different century, in a different community. The designers chose literature as the organizing theme. A quote from Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man” was sandblasted on the glass wall of the addition, visible from both inside and outside: “I love light. Perhaps you’ll think it strange that an invisible man should need light, desire light, love light. But maybe it is exactly because I am invisible. Light confirms my reality.”

Written in the late 1940s, “Invisible Man” introduced a new kind of black protagonist, much different from those of the leading African-American author of the time, Richard Wright, whose angry, uneducated protagonists were the products of an oppressive society. Ellison rejected both literary and sociological portrayals of a downtrodden African-American culture defined solely by white society. He believed blacks had created their own traditions, rituals and history, developing a cohesive and complex culture—and that embracing this culture was the way to freedom. The design team used these contrasting literary perspectives to reflect community and to teach students, with the historic building representing Wright’s perspective, the new one Ellison’s belief in intellectual discovery and introspection as the means to freedom.

Project Information

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

Staples Elementary School (Easton, CT), The SLAM Collaborative

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

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

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


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