Project York House Senior School, Vancouver, British Columbia
Architect Acton Ostry Architects Inc.
Text Hadani Ditmars
Photos Bob Matheson and Michael Elkan
Since Vancouver’s York House School for Girls opened its doors 82 years ago, education has taken a quantum leap. No longer in the safe realm of reading, writing and arithmetic, it is now more about teaching “flexibility, creativity and collaboration,” says architect Mark Ostry.
Concurrently, there has been a shift in attitudes to girls’ education, as well as a sea change in York House’s student body. While always a progressive school, its former status as a bastion of elite privilege has given way to a new multicultural and increasingly international Vancouver reality. Add growing enrollment to the picture, and it was clear that a new building was needed for the school’s 600 students.
The result—Acton Ostry’s recently completed building for senior students—connects existing campus structures while housing vibrant dynamic spaces for learning. The initiative was spearheaded by former head of school Gail Ruddy, and enabled by a private funding drive that raised $50 million from alumni and donors (the funds also contributed to a new auditorium in 2006). Not only is Acton Ostry’s addition an architectural highlight, it also links disparate buildings, streamlines the campus and provides a clear entrance portal for students, parents and faculty.
Far from any cloying Victorian sense of a “school for girls” hidden away in safe solitude, the new school building offers transparency, illumination and connection to the outdoors. “This isn’t about taking girls out of society,” says Ostry, “it’s about providing an environment that encourages them to be leaders in society.”
The building it replaces, explains Ostry, was a 1971 wood-clad structure with 8-foot ceilings, no sunlight and no clear sense of place. The new Senior School is the exact opposite: a sunny realm made of glass, limestone, concrete and maple that orients students to the surrounding campus and fosters interaction.
As with the firm’s Sauder School of Business at the University of British Columbia, the trick of uniting buildings from different eras—in this case, a 1988 science wing, 1995 cafeteria, 2006 auditorium and 1961 junior school—is achieved by means of a light-filled atrium. All appears seamless now, but it was a challenge to connect buildings that featured disparate elevations and architectural styles. Also challenging was the installation of mechanical systems on the crowded site. With maximum height already reached and no room on the ground level, the design team decided to install the necessary equipment on the basement level, with air drawn from the courtyard, and noise mitigated by silencers.
While the atrium is relatively simple in plan, the complexity of the section compels. Viewed from below, the series of stairwells and glass railings leading upwards offers intriguing angles and uniquely framed views. The overall effect suggests boldness, Modernism and optimism—a design sensibility that current head of school Chantal Gionet (who happens to be married to an architect) says encourages a “sense of self-confidence” in students. Indeed, it’s as if the building itself exudes self-esteem.
The design certainly seems to encourage socialization and individuality, with its institutional scale broken down by surprisingly residential features. Visitors find themselves lingering longer than expected, locked in conversations the gathering spaces seem to inspire, while lounges offer opportunities for group study and personal time. With the site poised between busy King Edward Avenue to the north and stately Shaughnessy homes to the south, part of this interplay between the institutional and the intimate was a natural process. But it was also a conscious decision: the architects aimed to counter the classic “school as prison” image by imbuing their space with a sense of freedom.
The journey through the building begins with a generous and seductive entrance on the west side. A processional sense of terracing begins here, leading all the way down to an auditorium, buried under the playfield and shared by both Junior and Senior Schools. This pathway partially replaces an old underground tunnel that once joined the two spaces, which are now married by a fluid horizontal embrace.
Landscaping by the PWL Partnership augments the architectural journey by mixing traditional box hedges and white roses (the school’s signature flower) with more modern plantings, like long grasses in rectilinear containers. Stone walls vary in height and merge into vine-covered trellises, offering peek-a-boo views into the courtyard and beyond.
Outside as well as inside, scale is broken down into lovely intimate spaces. On the west side, an accessibility ramp successfully blends form and function, incorporating a series of terraces that culminate in a covered outdoor teaching area. Nearby, a contemplative space, flanked by an elongated water feature, offers a Zen retreat and a place to meditate on the school’s motto, “Not for Ourselves Alone.”
The school’s theme of community outreach extends to the building itself, which opens up to its environment on all three levels. Classrooms include generous windows that are shaded from the sun by vertical fins, while on the upper floor, a long terrace spans the western façade. On the east side, the teachers’ lounge—complete with communal dining table, kitchen, and spa-like changing and shower areas—opens into a terraced garden.
At the core of the building, the centre of the atrium is a busy crossroads, with students circulating in all directions, anchored by east- and west-facing views encompassing other campus buildings. Concrete floors seeded with exposed aggregate and then ground and polished offer a terrazzo feel, while informal study spaces soften the open area with more intimate pockets.
The glass balustrades of the stairwells are embellished with the names of every alumnus since 1932, as well as of illustrious women—ranging from Joan of Arc to Hillary Clinton. And the interior boasts a few colourful touches, like red, orange and saffron glass-doored lockers. Otherwise, Acton Ostry has created a tabula rasa—a temple to learning that is also an open canvas for girls to paint on—encouraging a sense of individuation and self-expression.
The idea of the school as a blank slate is both figurative and literal. All blackboards, for example, have been replaced by whiteboards, and classrooms are flexible minimalist spaces that encourage regular interior rearrangement. Clutter is banished to storage areas, hidden by sliding glass doors painted white—which also double as writing surfaces. Students make full use of smartboard technology that allows for real-time input via individual digital devices.
On the atrium-facing side of the locker, a pin-up surface welcomes inspirational images and texts. At the time of this author’s visit, material on display included a collection of Marxist posters from Lenin’s era, articles on Martin Luther King, and gay-positive images of two young Chinese women. Wow, York House. You’ve come a long way, baby. CA
Client York House School | Architect Team Mark Ostry, Russell Acton, Susan Ockwell, Michael Fugeta, Ryan McCuaig, Nathaniel Straathof, Sergei Vakhramee | Structural Fast + Epp | Mechanical MCW Consultants Ltd. (formerly Perez Engineering Ltd.) | Electrical Acumen Engineering | Landscape PWL Partnership Landscape Architects Inc. | Interiors Acton Ostry Architects Inc. | Contract
or Haebler Construction Ltd. | Acoustics Daniel Lyzun & Associates | Environmental/Hazardous Materials ACM Environmental Corporation | Building Envelope Morrison Hershfield Ltd. | Code Gage-Babcock & Associates Ltd. | Geotechnical EXP | Surveyor Murray & Associates | Specifications Padley Consulting Inc. | Quantity Surveyor BTY Group | Area 3,345 m2 | Budget $12 M | Completion August 2013