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Nothing Old School About It

June 18, 2006

When designing a building, architects often feel as though they're pulled in different directions. They want to do a good job for the person paying them, to give the client what he or she wants out of the building. But many architects also feel an obligation to the place their building will live in. They want their design to work well at the scale of the town or the city.

West Hartford's new Bristow Middle School, now wrapping up its first academic year, is a good case in point. Tai Soo Kim Partners, the Hartford architecture firm that designed Bristow, worked at several scales to make this building the success that it is.

At the personal scale of the students and teachers, the arrangement of classrooms, offices and support spaces in distinct pods serves the pedagogical needs of the staff. You enter each pod from the main hallway, into smaller corridors that lead directly into classrooms, labs, seminar rooms and offices. The cozy arrangement of these educational spaces helps protect them from the hubbub of the hallway, cuts down on distractions, and encourages both teachers and kids to focus on the tasks at hand.

At the scale of the neighborhood, the design responds to another set or priorities, but it never loses sight of its primary purpose as a place for teaching. Bristow is situated on the site of the old Kingswood-Oxford Middle School between Highland Street and Prospect Avenue. The new building actually has two faces, one on each street (and two towns: West Hartford on Highland and Hartford on Prospect). To complicate matters, there is a historic house on the property. The Shepard House dates from 1901, but has been used as a school since the mid-1920s. Kingswood-Oxford built an assortment of facilities around Shepard and even attached to it. The architectural integrity of the old house in this historic neighborhood was virtually lost under the barnacles of buildings it had accumulated over the years.

Kim rescued the house and transformed it to serve Bristow's needs. On Shepard's north side, additions were peeled away, returning the house to its original footprint. Shepard's brownstone base and stucco exterior were restored, while inside woodwork, plaster, and leaded glass windows were refurbished.

The principal's office and other administrative spaces now occupy Shepard's first floor, while the second floor holds Bristow's library. The top floor contains some small classrooms and offices. When you view it from Prospect Avenue, Shepard appears to have been returned to its place in this historic neighborhood, which helped to repair a bit of the city's urban fabric.

But how to join Shepard to the school? Connecting a new building to a historic structure is always a design challenge. How do you create something that seems to fit with both old and new?

In this case, the architect opted for a three-story-tall corridor and staircase that has no architectural resemblance to Shepard. When viewed from the side, this glass and steel umbilical cord almost disappears, but not quite. And from Prospect Avenue, it is not even visible.

Jeanne Camperchioli, Bristow's principal, reports that the bright connector is a big hit with everyone who uses the school. "It flows very nicely," she told me, allowing easy connections from all three levels of the two buildings.

A bigger challenge was making the new school fit with the neighborhood, both on Highland and Prospect. As it faces West Hartford, the building picks up on the scale and color of nearby apartment buildings and institutional structures. It doesn't duplicate these buildings in detail, but generally fits in with the neighbors.

Residents were concerned about the impact of a large parking lot and a potential sea of cars. Kim minimized this by tucking nearly 50 spaces underground, accessible through a low-key entrance on Prospect. There is a surface lot accessible from Highland on the south end of the building that is partially screened by trees.

Prospect Avenue neighbors were concerned about traffic. Situating the school bus drive and pick up/drop off on Highland assuaged some of their fears. There was also apprehension about the size of this 72,000-square-foot building and how it would visually affect the neighborhood. A key to the design's success is that this big building is set back from Shepard and breaks down into smaller pieces.

The long facade that faces Prospect is divided into three segments, each in scale with the Shepard House, that diminish in height. This trio doesn't copy Shepard, of course, but there is a family resemblance. The base of the school is a brownstone color that echoes that of the historic house, and the upper portions are rendered in the same light hue as Shepard's stucco walls. The visual effect is an echo of the rhythm of houses that you find on Prospect.

Bristow's Prospect Avenue facade also gives you a hint of how natural light permeates the interior (getting back to where we started - how well the building works for those who use it every day), which the principal describes as "unbelievable and fantastic."

It was cloudy the day I visited Bristow, but you wouldn't know it from inside the school. The roof of the main corridor pops up to grab sunlight, bringing it down through two levels. Windows cover much of the school's Prospect Avenue side. Here the cafeteria and the gym have wonderful views out to the lawn and its mature trees, and on most days it's not even necessary to turn on the lights.

Even the auditorium has a large window. What better building than a school to be a beacon of light?

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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