Biblical Proportions

Project King David High School, Vancouver, British Columbia

Architect Acton Ostry Architects Inc.

Landscape Cornelia Hahn Oberlander/Durante Kreuk Landscape Architects

Text Adele Weder

Photos Martin Tessler

Near the geographic centre of Vancouver stands a small, handsome school that is representative of the power of community will. King David High School is a 9,500-square-metre shoebox outstretched along the full length of a big-city block, yet its presence is subdued by thoughtful articulation and landscaping.

The need for the new school emerged when the old school, which shared premises with a French public school, was purchased outright by the francophone school board, who then took over the whole property. By this time, overflow classes were held in “modular components”–the architectural euphemism for the makeshift rooms known with universal disdain as “portables”–affixed to the existing school. Philanthropists in the local Jewish community provided much of the $6.9-million budget for the new school. The design team of Acton Ostry Architects and Cornelia Oberlander provided its graceful architectural expression.

From its precarious situation a few years ago, the new environment reads as a total reversal of fortune. The intricate landscaping and site-poured concrete evokes a high-end permanence. The sapphire-blue glass panes and Jerusalem stone that accent the school are emphatic symbols of Israel.

However logical that marketing approach may seem, it is not always thus in the architecture of schools. Acton Ostry is experienced in both Judaic programming (West Vancouver’s Har El Synagogue) and education (two elementary schools in Haida Gwaii.) Surprisingly, it is the latter program–education delivery–that is the more politically sensitive and liable to the foibles of human misjudgements. From the mid to late 1990s, the provincial government of the day reacted to architecturally expressive schools like the Patkaus’ Strawberry Vale, with an almost vengeful regime of cost- cutting. Construction budgets of public schools swooped so low–roughly $84 per square foot–that it soon proved impossible for most architects to design a well-functioning structure (see CA, August 2001). The savings proved illusory–the repairs on the low-cost schools exceeded the capital savings–and the budgets have since been raised to roughly $100 per square foot today. Still, the public approach compares weakly with King David’s budget of $200 per square foot, and, more pertinently, with its idea that architecture can facilitate learning.

Overall, the architectural values of King David embody a consideration to design without willful extravagance. Immediately upon entrance, the visitor beholds an environment that is decidedly humanistic, beginning with the birch plywood and cherrywood reception counter. The concrete floor and seating on the main floor speak to a contemporary aesthetic. In the library, the mechanicals are encased in a framed bulkhead that generates both a sense of thickness and also a spatial definition to the computer area below.

The organizing spine in this highly linear plan is a surprisingly open-walled central corridor. The open areas flanking the corridor prevent the structure from reading as an oppressive institutional labyrinth. Off one bank of this corridor is a kind of a piazza with a circulation pathway along an interior street, allowing for spontaneous social gathering and conversation, the sort of social element that’s often forgotten in school design. The generous windows offer views of a glorious jackpine backstoried by cars streaming down the busy 41st Street thoroughfare–but all in eerie silence, a testament to the power of triple glazing.

The corridor is defined on the other side by the multipurpose assembly hall for sanctuary and school-wide assembly. With a larger, more variegated school, it might be a breach of logic to design such an open main floor. But the scheme is expected to work exceedingly well in a small, integrated school like King David. Still, it’s easy to imagine that the occasional cacophony would grind on the nerves of a few would-be sanctuary seekers. Ostry argues otherwise: the openness, he insists, “teaches the kids to have respect for other people when they’re engaged in these activities, so it builds communities.”

The glulam beams of the assembly hall define the space while linking it to the central hallway and social areas. This structural framework reads as a rib cage around the heart of the school. Spatially, it’s further articulated by screens of 1 * 3 fir slats at either end of the central corridor, but this gesture is more a psychological division of space than a true visual or sound barrier.

Upstairs, the classrooms are arranged in a more conventionally closed manner. Practical details abound: every classroom interior is clad from mid-wall to ceiling with wraparound marmoleum corkboard. “Our research in public schools has the same feedback: there’s never enough pin-up space,” notes Ostry.

The Acton Ostry team has been able to channel their sometimes gratuitous predilection for playfully slanted shapes into functional elements. The information counters of the reception and library are tapered and curved. In the music/drama room, the storage cupboards are configured as scalloped projections, the better to dampen the sounds of tuba practice.

The site itself is challenging in its stark simplicity. The long, narrow structure faces a busy thoroughfare on the north and a row of emerging townhouses on the south. Sandwiched between high-speed traffic and even higher-speed development, the building is an apt metaphor for a school community that thrives amid the Marinettian chaos of the modern city.

In this particular school, landscaping plays an especially crucial role, as evidenced by the enlistment of the legendary Cornelia Oberlander. But this project cannot be considered a quintessential Oberlander creation; much direction was already given by the client, who specified the biblical approach to its content. Acton Ostry laid out the rough scheme, and Oberlander was brought aboard midway through design development to apply her expertise in plant selection and location. “She made it come to life with the plants she chose,” says Ostry. Medicinal herbs and grains pertinent to the Torah (wheat, barley, and rye) are planted in stepped rows. Elsewhere, flowers, mosses, ivies and grasses are arranged as part of a “teaching garden” for the students. The crowning detail is the Cedar of Lebanon (at the moment a rather unassuming sapling), atop a berm hill built from excavated soil that evokes a symbolic Mount David.

While symbolism is the landscaping’s strongest feature, it also embodies sustainable design elements. Rain is collected from the main roof and slopes down a greywater trench, which slowly returns the water to the land, thereby reducing runoff and pressure on sealed surfaces. The building itself is oriented towards the south, where sunlight streams in through generous windows and skylights, tempering the reliance on electrical lighting. On a recent spring day, a visitor could walk through the entire building with no need to flick on a light switch.

The most accomplished elements of King David–certainly the aesthetic features but even the ecological innovations–would no doubt still be difficult to sell in the public-school sector, where politicians and their underlings fear the perceptions of taxpaying voters. But in the private sector, there is no need for such misbegotten fears. Design is recognized as the public face of the product, and its end users–children and their parents–vote for or against it by way of their voluntary enrollment and tuition dollars.

King David has almost doubled its enrollment this year and is projected to swell again next year by 20 percent; definitely an affirmative vote for the design team. Still, a discomfiting question loom
s large: why couldn’t this kind of endorsement prevail in the public school system?

Adele Weder is an architectural writer and co-author of B.C. Binning, published by Douglas & McIntyre.

Client A Vancouver Family Foundation

Architect Team Mark Ostry, Russell Acton, Alex Percy, Peeroj Thakre, George Mccutcheon, Nathaniel Straathof, Esteban Undurraga, Javier Campos, Gavin Mackenzie, David Zeibin, Patricia Yam

Structural Glotman Simpson Consulting Engineers

Mechanical Sterling Cooper & Associates

Electrical Arnold Nemetz & Associates Ltd.

Landscape Cornelia Hahn Oberlander Landscape Architect and Durante Kreuk Landscape Architects

Interiors Acton Ostry Architects Inc.

Contractor The Haebler Group

Area 35,000 Ft2

Budget $6.9 M

Completion September 2005