What’s With the Egg Crate Roof?

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Fly over New Haven, CT and on Chapel Street you will find a roof like no other. There are the pitched roofs of the nineteenth century and the flat asphalt roofs of the twentieth, and then there’s the roof of the Yale Center for British Art that looks like the bottom of an egg crate. Its neighbors are all asphalt and mechanical system units but not this building. The roof is too precious to give away. The project had already lost the ground because the city needed the tax revenue from the commercial space, but no big loss there if art is all about mental transport elsewhere. The project was designed for a specific collection so when the architect Louis Kahn and the architectural lighting designer Richard Kelly set out to light it, the artwork was in essence their true client. How does the work want to be lit, they asked? This collection is all about Turner’s sea storms—sea storms of color is what they are, color that comes alive under the carefully choreographed sunlight from the top. The egg crate bumps are essentially geometry light machines, bouncing south light around until it comes into the gallery without recking havoc on the canvases. It turns out that south light has less UV rays than north light—problem is of course those darn direct rays heating up whatever it touches, but Kahn’s and Kelly’s egg crate light contraptions make it quite harmless by the time it reaches the paintings.

Start designing your building from the top, I say. In a school it could be outdoors, provided there are very high barriers to keep errant balls from falling on windshields below. But it is NYC and it is hot and cold and rainy and windy sometimes so something indoors with lots of light might be order. Except that they use screens, lots of screens, including something called SmartBoards, and some teachers keep the light low because they believe this keeps the students calm and focused. What I’m trying to say is that air and light are not good on their own; they need to be engaged with architecture, so engage away like Kahn and Kelly did. Another of their collaborations, the Kimbell Art Museum, I’ve never been, one of three reasons I need to go to Texas and soon, but I’ve been told by architects and non-architects alike that when a cloud passes in front of the sun it’s as if the building is breathing, their light contraption there acting like some sort of light megaphone. Light and air only go so deep and that’s OK because life in a school needs all sorts of spaces with varying degrees of open-ness and close-ness.

We already talked about the nine core classrooms and potential associated spaces (in schools with straightforward classrooms-with-doors the teachers use the location of furniture and the always very wide hallways to adopt the space to their needs). Then we also have the destination spaces of the science room and the art room. In one school I’m thinking of they are stacked on top of each other for building construction convenienceKimbell because they both have the same sort of needs. They are “heavier” than the core classrooms. For one thing they have a storage room attached to them. They also have in-classroom plumbing, washing off being par of the course in planting potatoes or making papier-mâché. The items in these classrooms are also cumbersome. The science room might have rabbits and fishtanks; the art room might have pottery projects and always has flatwork drying. Dark rooms and kilns are outgrowths of art rooms; salt water tanks and egg incubators are outgrowths of science rooms. These are academic units with tricky physical space requirements but they are also great starting points for enrichments. The light and air needed for these two categories of learning spaces will depend on the specifics of what sort of school life goes on there.

There’s a small army of non-teaching adults that make the school run smoothly. There’s the logistics of organizing schedules, of communication within the school and with the families, of supporting the teachers, not to mention cleaning and mending when needed. You can think of them as having a base in an administrative suite surrounding the principal’s office. There’s a certain practicality to having everybody in the same space for coordination purposes. This “main office” is also the second point of entry for anyone out of the regular rhythm of the school, like a visitor or a student getting picked up early for a doctor’s appointment, so something like a receptionist counter is probably here (remember the first point of entry is the security guard, which is necessarily close to the street but does not need to be close to the administration). But there’s also some sense in distributing some of the small offices throughout the building—a network of adult eyes. The guidance counselor and the nurse, for example, can be almost anywhere, although they will both likely visit the main office a few times a day. There’s a whole lot of walking going on in a given school day, by adults and students alike. The principal’s office is the intellectual and emotional center of the school (but of course, this doesn’t mean it has to be literally in the center). The principal’s office functions day to day as the safe space for anything that comes up (ideally it can be either open to all in several places or 100% visually/auditorily tight). Make sure there’s a bathroom attached to the principal’s office; in fact, the principal’s office is a kind of sub-suite to the administrative suite. Entire families sometimes need to meet with teachers, counselors, etc. to resolve a situation, so it’s good to get that sub-suite self-sufficient in all creature comforts.

If all the daily workings of the school are running smoothly then there’s also the true work of curriculum planning and assessment. The school as a learning environment works in a triangular constant feedback loop or planning, enacting, assessing lessons. The assessment, by the way, can be more nuanced and more continuous than standardized tests. Assessment is about sitting down with students and seeing how they are working through a problem, how they are using writing to think through an issue—that’s when the associated spaces of the nine core classrooms come in handy, so the teacher can meet with a handful of students at a time. The principal also functions as the leader of the teaching staff; providing professional development for the teachers and setting up adequate conditions for the writing of lesson plans can make the difference between a good school and a great school. The principal’s sub-suite can be plenty for small meetings with a couple of teachers, but for larger meetings, as when for example a consultant on math teaching runs a workshop with all the math teachers, then conference-room-like spaces are needed. The nine core classrooms are not as programmatically “heavy” as the science and art rooms, but they are still pretty “tilled” in terms of how much personal things fill them up. The professional development workshops can happen in rooms that are like classrooms and that could even be used as classrooms if, for example, one of the parents is an architect and is offering an architecture class one semester; or if, for another example, the students need a room with a door for their chess club. All this to say that this is how the “extra classrooms” listed in your program function. In a way, they function like our seminar rooms: available to be reserved for a variety of activities. These two have no specific place where they need to be and can be distributed throughout the building.

And that’s it for all the main learning spaces for students and staff, both teaching and not, and where students spend a majority of their school day, which also means all these spaces need firefighter access (a window big enough to break through). There are the nine core classrooms and their associated spaces, there’s the art room and the science room and their potential expansion into electives for the students (use your special classroom square footage here), and the administrative offices and additional professional development space. Make architecture out of those and the rest is gravy.

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