Monday, November 29, 2010

structure :: spirit :: sustainability

Phillis Wheatley Elmentary School, 1955, Charles R. Colbert, photo by Emily Ardoin

Regional Modernism is not just about documenting modern buildings in New Orleans, but also discovering their language of forms in relation to the environment and cultural landscape.

Back in April, I defined regionalism as a "syncretic approach to design, exhibiting a consciousness of both environmental forces and vernacular forms." A syncretic approach is one which attempts to reconcile two seemingly disparate methods. In this case, combining the purity of purpose and abstraction associated with high Modernism with the essential wisdom of our vernacular architecture's refined relationship to the environment.

New Orleans modernists were faced with relatively the same landscape and climate as their forebears - semi-tropical and surrounded by water. In Buildings of Louisiana Karen Kingsley outlines how the environment influenced the shape of our architecture.

1) Raising the building off the ground not only protects from flooding, but also improving the chances of a favorable breeze on the second story with the added benefit of less mosquitos.
2) Deep galleries shade the walls, protect them from rain and provide outdoor living and sleeping space. These were also often used for circulation between rooms instead of an internal corridor.
3) Windows and doors were aligned to provide cross-ventilation.
4) High ceilings and steep roof pitches draw off heat.
5) Cypress was in abundant supply and resistant to rot and became a primary building material.

The first three characteristics are significant elements in the design of the Phillis Wheatley Elementary School: the primary structure is raised on piers, saving classrooms from flooding, deep galleries connect the classrooms and overlook interior the courtyard, and the alignment of windows and doors allows for favorable air circulation. These sustainable design strategies are shared with our most significant historic homes including Madame John's Legacy (1795) and the Pitot House (1799). Yet the spirit of the Phillis Wheatley structure is thoroughly modern as evidenced by its cantilevered steel trusses, transparent skin and bold concrete piers.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

And then there will be one.

In a field of lost opportunities we have a singular instance of adaptive reuse.  McDonogh 36 Elementary School was the only school from the 1950s not slated for demolition by the School Facilities Master Plan. The school was renovated by architect John C. Williams for a non-profit foundation and re-opened in 2010 as the Mahalia Jackson Early Childhood Family Learning Center. During renovation the facility was stripped bare to the concrete and steel structure, shedding years of unsympathetic alterations and redundant mechanical systems. 

The form is a fusion of a ‘finger plan’ school with a double galleried plantation house. Mature live oaks inhabit the courtyards between the wings.  Initial concerns that the final product could trend toward the phony colonial were unnecessary. The modernist spirit survived. The renovation includes walls of operable windows and an open air circulation gallery. The new program is brilliant and the renovation reminds us how modern school facilities could be retrofitted to serve the community in new ways if only given the chance.

Friday, November 5, 2010

4 :: 3 :: 2 :: 1 :: Carver School Faces Imminent Demolition

Carver High School Auditorium
Carver High School Auditorium, 3059 Higgins Boulevard, New Orleans, LA (1958, Curtis and Davis, architects). Progressive Architecture First Design Award 1957, New Orleans Nine Most Endangered 2008, Eligible for National Register, Demolition permit: November 1, 2010.  Photo: Francine Stock

In the past two years the mid 20th century modern public school has become an endangered species in New Orleans. Of the city's thirty public schools designed and built in the 1950s, today only four are left standing. Soon only one may remain.

Earlier this week the City of New Orleans issued a demolition permit for the George Washington Carver Junior-Senior High School designed by Curtis and Davis, architects. The Helen Sylvania Edwards Elementary School shared many campus facilities with Carver, but has already been demolished. The integration of three schools (elementary, junior and senior high) on a 65 acre campus in the upper ninth ward allowed the schools to share common facilities (cafeteria, kitchen, auditorium) and yet retain age-segregated classroom buildings. The auditorium was also available in the evening for community events. The striking design of the auditorium with its soaring (40 ft high and 200 ft long) parabolic concrete vault and hinged buttresses is truly monumental. The Federal Emergency Management Association determined the Carver auditorium building eligible for the National Register of Historic Places.

DOCOMOMO US/Louisiana advocated for the auditorium structure to be retained as part of a new campus plan and suggested that it be adaptively reused as an open air pavilion. Unfortunately, the auditorium will be demolished with the remaining buildings on campus.

The concept of a "school village" was first articulated by architect and planner Charles R. Colbert in 1952 in A Continuous Planning and Building Program, an analysis of existing public school facilities in New Orleans and plans for expansion. The city had not built a single school facility in the 1940s and the population was rapidly expanding. Urban land values in center of the city were twenty times higher than in the newer suburbs. Selecting a site of "ninety beautifully wooded acres, at the edge of urban development, six miles away" from the densely populated center of New Orleans would save six million dollars in land acquisition. Colbert calculated that this savings would support nearly a century of "quality bus transportation." Colbert envisioned the buses as "mobile classrooms." The teachers would travel with the students and with a set of visual aids to extend classroom instruction during the commute to their "semi-rural, college-like campus." Though the mobile classrooms never materialized, Colbert's idea of a "school village" formed the basis of the Carver campus plan designed by Curtis and Davis.

In It Happened by Design, architect Arthur Q. Davis recalled that the firm initially was contracted to design a senior high school, a portion of the site allocated for a junior high to be designed by another firm, and room left over for a future elementary school. Curtis and Davis convinced the school board that it was more economical to develop the three schools as part of an overall campus plan from the beginning. The board approved their plan for a more efficient campus of ten buildings linked by covered walkways. In 1957 the plan of the Carver schools gained national recognition winning both Progressive Architecture's First Design Award and the American Institute of Architects' Best Overall Plan for a School Complex.

The 2008 School Facilities Master Plan for Orleans Parish (SFMPOP) called for the demolition of the Carver School suggesting "complete replacement." In fact, the SFMPOP called for the near eradication of the 1950s public schools. The only facility from the era reserved for the future by the SFMPOP  is McDonogh 36 (1954, Sol Rosenthal and Charles R. Colbert). This school has been renovated by John C. Williams and reopened this year as the Mahalia Jackson Early Childhood Family Learning Center.

DOCOMOMO US/Louisiana successfully nominated Carver and three other schools to the Louisiana Landmarks Most Endangered List in 2008. McDonogh 39 Elementary School (1952, Goldstein, Paham and Labouisse; Freret and Wolf, Curtis and Davis, associate architects) the first modern school in New Orleans was demolished earlier this year without review. McDonogh 39 (later renamed after local civil rights activist Avery Alexander) was in Gentilly and thus outside of the Neighborhood Council District Review Committee. 

FEMA also determined that the classroom buildings at Thomy Lafon Elementary School (1954, Curtis and Davis) and the Phillis Wheatley Elementary School (1955, Charles R. Colbert) were eligible for the National Register of Historic Places. The Recovery School District's desire to use public funds to demolish these historic structures triggered a Section 106 consultation in accordance with the 1966 National Historic Preservation Act. This bought these facilities some time during the consultation process, but they are likely to be demolished in the coming year.

Idea: the Shaping Force, Charles R. Colbert, 1987, Pendaya Publications
It Happened by Design, Arthur Q. Davis, 2008, University Press of Mississippi