In the 1960s, America embraced the tenets of modernism, giving rise to suburban schools with open floor plans, natural lighting, increased ventilation, and technology in classrooms. During that decade, the civil rights movement shifted its national focus to the integration of urban schools, which heightened security and ushered in barrier-based design. Continued national unrest — fueled by America’s involvement in the Vietnam War, the national protest movement that developed as a result, and the Kent State shootings that were part of the fallout — yielded still another architectural reaction: windowless buildings designed to be fortresses.
Alongside these trends are typologies that buck formal convention, either deliberately or of necessity. In Washington D.C., the “School Without Walls” riffed on an educational model piloted in Chicago and Philadelphia. Nicknamed (ironically) “Walls,” the school encouraged students to escape the classroom building and use the city’s museums, government offices, and universities as learning spaces — and its people as instructors.
On the other side of the world, women and girls in Pakistan pursuing an education today may study in a rotating carousel of environments, subject to availability — and determined by the threat the Taliban poses. Apartments, bombed-out buildings, and open fields replace traditional classrooms destroyed by targeted attacks. And the schools endure.
In short, schools are not defined by a collection of buildings; rather, they are defined by community. This is a value shared by Adam Wilson, the head of school and co-founder of the Griffin School in Austin. Established in 1996 by Wilson and four other colleagues, the high school was designed as a crucible for a passionate community made up of gifted students who learn in various ways, and the educators who devote their lives to teaching them.
“We send a lot of students on to some of the best schools in the country,” Wilson says. “Honestly, the more important thing for us is that people become authentic, creative, happy, healthy people, who want to make a difference, themselves, in the world.”
Now in its 22nd year and at its third location, the school is thriving. At no time is this more apparent than between classes in what has become — with the addition of its newest building, designed by Murray Legge Architecture — its central quad.
The campus is a composition of four structures tucked inside a quiet residential neighborhood of well-kept, single-family pitched-roof bungalows, narrow streets, and mature, broad-canopied trees. A converted L-shaped church houses administration and classrooms, with two smaller buildings — one a converted home and the other a metal structure — to the east offering additional classroom space along with a workshop. The newest building, the school’s first ground-up construction, bookends the northern boundary of the courtyard. This multipurpose outdoor space, soaked in dappled light, fosters recreation, formal gatherings, and art project exhibitions — and facilitates circulation between classes.
Legge’s building, houselike in its profile, feels at once poised and playful. Deferential to its context, it is nevertheless not shy about assuming its place. Without being a try-hard, it commands attention. The structure accomplishes much of this through massing alone. Its first story is a taut, extruded brick rectangle, lending an air of permanence befitting an institution that intends to stick around for awhile. Atop this volume rests an exaggerated A-frame clad with a standing-seam metal roof set back from the street to provide a small, uncovered patio.
This second story is punctured by a series of generously-sized, north-facing dormers, as well as a green, cantilevered volume on the south facade that houses both a sunny student lounge and a shaded, quad-facing porch. These two programs are connected by an outdoor stair, one of two that service the building, giving students a choice in how they navigate between classes.
The spaces within the building are varied and smartly arranged. The west end is dedicated to offices and administration, while the main circulation runs east to west along the south edge. This creates a logical and bright connection to the porch and adjacent courtyard.
Services, in addition to a well-equipped recording studio, are centralized, leaving the remaining space for five intimate yet airy classrooms, two on the ground floor and three on the level above. Each classroom has a large window or dormer, bathing the modestly proportioned spaces with indirect light and affording views of the snug neighborhood.
White walls complement exposed wood structural members on each floor. This feature, combined with a masterful daylighting scheme, creates a pure backdrop to the student body’s vibrant activities — a “canvas” for the students and their work, according to principal Murray Legge, FAIA.
Just a brief visit to the school suggests something to a guest that students and faculty must know intuitively: This time and place are special. The building, as deft and sensitive as it is in its own right, didn’t create that condition, and it doesn’t pretend to have done so: It has to be the learning environment — the teachers and the learners — that created it. Though much of the history of campus architecture is reactive, Legge’s addition reacts not to fleeting societal priorities of the moment, but rather to a combination of values that educators and architects alike consider timeless.
Christopher Ferguson, Assoc. AIA, is a designer at Clickspring Design and co-founder of DO.GROUP.