Schools of Thought

Clients who encourage and demand good architectural design, especially when they work in the public sphere, raise the bar and help create a climate of design excellence and public satisfaction. In North York, a municipality to the north of Toronto’s downtown and one of the city’s six separate municipalities prior to amalgamation in January 1998, a series of public schools stand as testimonials to the good judgment and foresight of a design-focused client.

Architect Sheila Penny, who worked for ten years as an associate at Toronto’s Moriyama and Teshima Architects, joined the North York Board of Education as Chief Architect in 1992. Now the General Manager of Technical Services at the post-amalgamation Toronto District School Board, she orchestrated a rigorous selection process for hiring architects while at the North York Board in the ’90s. In addition to a design-related submission/shortlist/interview process Penny and the Board looked to a firm’s history with respect to experience with institutional buildings, technical ability, project management and liability protection. “I asked architects to tell us what they thought the particular challenges of a project were, and asked them about their experience in talking with the community, students and teachers,” says Penny. “It was of particular importance that architects look at a site from ground zero.” Penny’s belief that a student’s environment was an important part of the quality of his or her educational experience resulted in this careful deliberation over a firm’s ability to envision the building in use, and to possess the farsightedness that would go into an enduring design and set of building materials–all within a stringent average construction budget of $98.05 per square foot.

Working in a consultative capacity with the local school community design teams–groups made up of teachers, parents, students, rate-payers’ organizations, trustees and neighbours–the architects developed a design solution that incorporated maintenance and operations considerations. These factors helped create a sense of open communication about the project in the wider community, and sidestepped potential suspicion. Taylor Hariri Pontarini Architects’/ Rieder, Hymmen & Lobban Architects’ Glen Park Park Public School project involved bi-weekly meetings with community members, where a list of key ideas and principles were drawn up. Efforts to enrich students’ appreciation of the natural environment included the inclusion of a garden courtyard planting project area as the focal point of the building’s organization. An intimacy of scale appropriate for children and multicoloured glazed masonry make the courtyard especially inviting. The library, like many of the projects spearheaded by Sheila Penny, was placed at the school’s core. The story-telling room projects into the garden, and the library is made more inviting still with multiple points of access from the surrounding clusters of classrooms and their accompanying gathering spaces. For the purposes of team-teaching, two classrooms can be linked through oversized sliding doors.

According to Penny, “when nobody says anything there is no real objection to the building,” though that is, as all architects know, not universally the case. For instance with Stephen Teeple’s Eglinton Spectrum Public School, which was pushed out to the sidewalk edge to make maximum use of available space, there were objections from neighbours. But the original design, centred as it was in its site, resulted in a lack of outdoor play space and a compromise of the safety of the playground. Despite some marginal dissatisfaction about the building’s relationship to the sidewalk, the design process for this school included extensive involvement by the School Board, the teachers, and the community working together on a design that tried to address concerns from all parties.

In the case of Stephen Teeple Architects’/Shore Tilbe Irwin Architects’ addition to Gateway Public School, when students were asked for input they expressed a need to connect to the landscape, because most of them lived in apartment buildings. The design team considered a nearby neglected ravine as a contextual element ripe for use, and integrated it to provide a landscape experience for the students. New classrooms, the library, and the lunchrooms are all provided with views of the ravine, and the library was relocated to the centre of the building to function as a public gathering place. This far-sightedness was borne of problem solving and a commitment to understanding the cultural dynamics specific to a particular public school.

Dublin Heights Public School, designed by Baird Sampson Neuert Architects with Makrimichalos Cugini Architects, benefited from a close examination of the entire site and a design effort to direct the daily flow of student use around a centrally located library. The library had been integral to the culture of the existing building, and in the new design became the focal point upon entry at the school’s main entrance, a nexus of communal and scholastic energy. It is contained in a glazed double-height volume within a central courtyard. A new two-storey wing of classrooms is poised to connect the projecting wings of the original H-shaped plan. These rooms link playgrounds located on opposite sides of the school. An effort has been made to vary the classrooms in configuration to promote a feeling of individuality and identity. For instance, a day care centre pavilion with its own identity and access features large corner windows and a butterfly roof form similar to the library’s.

In similarly holistic planning, Kuwabara Payne McKenna Blumberg’s McKee Public School design recognized the need for teachers to be visible to one another. It allows the multi-purpose gymnasium and lunch room to be combined to form a large community space. This aspect of the school’s usage is facilitated with the generous inclusion of glass and light throughout. The project was integrated into the existing low-rise neighbourhood and a unifying green or commons links the school with the adjacent Mitchell Field Community Centre to encompass a community hub. The school is enhanced by the contributions of several artists, including the three-foot high bronze owl sculptures on an exterior curved wall.

Webb Zerafa Menks Housden Partnership of Toronto designed a $3.5 million addition to Rockford Public School, a large 800-student institution. A gymnasium, new classrooms, a kindergarten, day care and workroom for staff were added. The community was involved in a design process that included relocating the school’s library to the centre of the building, along with the gymnasium, to establish a new main space as a hub. New building facades consist of planes of brick, glass, and stucco. They provide variety, relief and scale to the existing plain brick structure. A Resource Centre, once located at the far northwest corner of the school, has been moved to the centre, where it is highly visible from the main entrance. The kindergarten looks out onto a butterfly garden.

Penny emphasizes that the schools are attractive projects for architects in the city, opportunities to demonstrate design excellence, communication skills and vision with clients showing equal interest in bringing visionary work to completion. These projects succeeded in delighting school trustees, students, and teachers alike, all within a modest budget. Like an investment in a good education, the buildings continue to pay back in kind. This is evidenced in users’ satisfaction with spatial allocation, plan, aesthetics, and the buildings’ relationships to their sites. These projects demonstrate the substantial benefits, to both architects and communities, of working with a forward-thinking client.