At the St. Albans School, Marriott Hall is an environmental success story

MONEY WELL SPENT: The school's structure facilitates mingling and creates a sense of connection.
MONEY WELL SPENT: The school's structure facilitates mingling and creates a sense of connection. (Bill O'leary/the Washington Post)
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By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 13, 2009

The social energy in the halls, stairways and small lounges of the new Marriott Hall is low-key, but steady. If there's one way to describe what the boys are doing in the new addition to the prestigious St. Albans School, it's mingling.

The 25,000-square-foot expansion of the all-boys school in Northwest Washington has remade the views as you drive up Massachusetts Avenue. Where once there was a hillside campus of independent academic buildings in neo-Gothic style, there is now a tightly woven, unified structure, bound together but not dominated by a Skidmore, Owings & Merrill-designed three-story addition clad in light-colored Potomac blue stone and glass.

But it is the mingling that first strikes you upon entering the modernist structure with cantilevered balconies and low terraces. Mingling is a low-key kind of anarchy, a free social interchange, an unstructured give-and-take. Mingling might well throw off sparks that don't fit the curriculum, generate energies that can't be contained in the daily plan. It is the sort of thing that well-socialized adults crave -- and find in city streets -- but it is also the sort of behavior that we diligently police in our schoolchildren.

Not St. Albans. The remarkable thing about its new building (and the 30,000 square feet of renovated older space with which it connects) is how porous it is, both to the outside world and to the free flow of social energy. It is filled with stairways and doors and intriguing open-air rooms that jut out and offer views of the city to the south and east. But it is also filled with spaces where students can meet, and interact, and even hide out from the bustle of the school day.

If this were a new office building, you'd say ho-hum. Progressive corporate types with an eye on how buildings can foster productivity have embraced the ideas of social serendipity and access to the natural world as bottom-line architectural values. Building designs that create chance encounters and unpredictable social engagement are deemed essential to sparking new ideas and breaking down the hierarchies and bunkers that limit the flow of information. And "healthy" buildings, filled with natural light and a proper respect for the outdoors and the environment, are considered basic good hygiene for office drones.

But it isn't necessarily easy to extend these concepts to our children. Green design, of course, has been making headway in schools. Three years ago, Sidwell Friends school finished an LEED Platinum building, the highest environmental designation, and the District is working to bring its new and newly renovated public school buildings up to higher levels of environmental sustainability.

Porosity, however, is another matter. "The design shuns the typical campus architecture of enclosed quads in favor of interconnectivity with the landscape," reads Skidmore, Owings & Merrill's project description of Marriott Hall, named for its lead donor, J. Willard Marriott. That means there are multiple doors to the outside world, and external pathways that allow students (and anyone else) to pass through the structure, up stairways and across terraces.

"It's a happy building," says Vance Wilson, headmaster of St. Albans, who adds that while security is a concern in an open building, the school can handle the challenge. "It's a better statement -- not hunkering down on a hill."

For some distressingly large part of our student population, school begins with a magnetometer, passage through a controlled entryway, and all too often, the pervasive sense of continual security throughout the day. Public schools deal with this with varying degrees of oppressiveness. But compare the permeability of St. Albans with a recent statement about the architecture of security issued by Jennifer Calloway, a spokeswoman in the chancellor's office of the District's public school system: "DCPS collaborates with the design team to determine camera locations, alarm locations, access control systems, security lighting, X-ray machines (secondary schools only) and metal detectors (secondary schools only)."

Or consider a recent debate about the design of a new building to replace the Washington Highlands library in the District. The design, submitted by architect David Adjaye, worried some parents precisely because it created separate spaces for teens that couldn't be easily surveyed and controlled from the main librarian's desk.

Thus the very idea of serendipity and flow is yet one more feature of the built environment that is available to some, and not to others, with class and economic lines among the factors that distinguish where it's welcomed from where it's threatening.

Fortunately, St. Albans (which costs more than $32,000 a year) has extended the idea of openness not just to its students, but to the larger public. As Skidmore, Owings & Merrill architect Roger Duffy explains, the new school building lies near the substantial remnants of what is known as Olmsted Woods, the remains of the landscape design created for the Washington National Cathedral grounds (on which St. Albans is located) by Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. beginning in 1907. Olmsted's design included pathways on which pilgrims could ascend from the low ground at one edge of the cathedral campus up to the elevation of the church itself.

That landscape idea was eventually incorporated into the new building as a metaphor for how the building would relate both to its physical context and to the people who choose to visit the larger campus that incorporates the cathedral and St. Albans. Olmsted's pathways are echoed in stairs and paths that pass through the building, creating passages that are open to visitors (even during school hours) and offer the general public some exceptional views both into the school and out to the larger world.

The Olmsted Woods are further referenced in planted terraces and green roofs, visible from different vantages throughout the St. Albans campus. The planter structures are larger and deeper than the usual boxes for flowers or shrubbery that green up other buildings. Duffy says they can sustain substantial trees, and though the building has been in use for only a few months now, its nascent landscape elements already have more heft than the sorry dwarves that grace most new structures.

All of this helps soften the impact of what might otherwise be a rather dreary design (at least from the exterior). There are views of Marriott Hall (especially from the drive that leads to the well-hidden loading dock) that are reminiscent of one of the more unsuccessful integrations of modernist design with campus Gothic, the dormitory buildings designed by Eero Saarinen for Yale University in the late 1950s and early 1960s. From some angles, the flat stone faces and miniature tower elements of Marriott Hall are as blank and forbidding as the faux-medieval hill town suggested by Saarinen's infamous Yale work.

But Skidmore, Owings & Merrill's design succeeds where Saarinen's faltered because it is more about connective tissue than an independent statement -- a nexus between existing buildings rather than a stand-alone structure -- and because the architects have taken great care with the stone facing. Different patterns, sizes and shades of stone lessen the oppressiveness, and integrate the new structure with the materials (including brick) present in the older ones.

On a chilly and very gray day in October, the building held up well to the gloom. Glass walls maximized natural daylight, supplemented by diffused artificial light that gave classrooms a delicious sense of calm. Students in small conference or study rooms on the top level of the building enjoyed nicely framed views of neo-Gothic arches and the green Senior Circle that is the main entrance to the school. Lower down, they played ball on a green roof and below that on yet another sports field -- known as Little Field -- which now feels both open yet sheltered by the embrace of the new school configuration.

But it was the minglers, small knots of students here and there throughout Marriott Hall and the pleasingly indeterminate spaces where it blends into the rest of the campus, that best captured the ideal of the building. If the building works as designed, it will offer myriad microcosms of learning, unstructured spaces perhaps, places where a solitary student can read and study unobserved by and lost to the world, at least for a while. It is a building that seems to trust its people, rather than reflect their anxieties and suspicions.

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