Form versus function

Form versus function

Head of School Coreen Hester notices a sharp contrast between the school’s interior during her first stint at ASL, as High School Principal during the 90s, and the school’s interior nowadays. “In the mid-90s, the whole inside of the building looked like the outside of the building. It was all brown brick,” she recalled.Brown has since turned to white, for the most part. Such a change may seem trivial, but with the construction of a new building – consisting of a new art wing and fitness center – set to break ground this spring, awareness of the signifance of aesthetics within an eduational instution has been renewed.

Hester’s mindset concerning the appearance of the school has markedly changed since her first tenure at ASL. “I used to think that if you had a great teacher, it didn’t matter what the building looked like, but I’ve actually gotten to the point where it has to be both. The form has to follow the function,” she said. “You have to have nice classrooms. It attracts better teachers, and it makes students and families more interested in coming here.”

The appearance of the building is only one small cog in the machine of a school, but it is a vital one, as Hester expressed. The responsibility of ensuring the functional performance of this cog belongs to Director of Operations and Technology Jim Heynderickx, who oversees any potential redesign.

His most notable recent accomplishment is the renovation of the Commons this past summer. The design was completely overhauled. The cafeteria section was relocated and the ceiling was made higher, among a host of other changes.

The balance between form and function is one that Heynderickx must strike. “I think what I like about aesthetics in a school like this is that you always tread the line between what’s practical and nice and enjoyable and pleasing and what’s over-the-top,” he said. “We can put crystal chandeliers throughout the building, but we don’t need them.”

In terms of the new building, Heynderickx must first find function before turning his attention to form. “The first and primary goal is always to have good program spaces. They have to work first as art galleries and as mini-gyms and as exercise studios,” he said.

Substantial natural light is a key component for a school, especially one based in a city, to achieve. Heynderickx outlined natural light as the next priority for the new building. “The second priority is natural light, that there’s a lot of windows in there and huge skylight and there’s stacks of glass and sets of glass on the sides of the building so there should be many more times natural light in them than the current art spaces,” he said.

Meanwhile, the introduction of “art galleries” in the new building is music to the ears of Visual Arts Teacher Erik Niemi. “One advantage of the new building is actually the gallery itself because we’ll be able to have formalized art shows where the community can come together to see student work, and where students will really get much more involved in the presentation process, which is a huge part of making art,” he said.

The new art wing will be slightly more separate from the rest of the school, and Niemi foresees the challenge associated with the detached location. “We will be more distant from the rest of the school, so we’ll have to think of new strategies and ways to bring artwork to the rest of the community and to continue to change the aesthetic of the other part of the school, even though we will have new spaces to use in the new art building,” he said.

The Mellon Library is “the next big project,” Hester said. Following the culmination of the construction of the new building, Heynderickx will turn his attention to overhauling the design of ASL’s home to 35,000 books. “In terms of budgeting, this building change is huge. We don’t want to do a fiddling job in the library and do something quick and something that we’ll regret later on,” Heynderickx explained.

Head Librarian Karen Field recognizes several difficulties with the current layout of the Mellon Library, including the monitoring of such a big space. “Five entrances to monitor is impossible,” she said. Additionally, the shelving, while “gorgeous,” “doesn’t fit a lot a books.”

Field, however, finds the acoustics to be satisfactory. “Of all the libraries I’ve worked in, this one is loud because it is kind of a social place… but it can be a quiet library, so acoustically I don’t think it’s horrible,” she said. “I’ve been in much worse libraries as far as that goes.”

The computer area in the back of the Mellon Library, where Middle School students are taught by the librarians, is set to be converted into a formal classroom over the summer. The change leaves Field and her fellow librarians without a regularly available space to teach the Middle School classes. The plan for now is to move these classes to the silent area, but Field fears further issues down the road. “I’m worried we’re not going to have enough quiet space eventually, but we’ll see,” she said.

Fortunately, redesigning the Mellon Library remains firmly in Heynderickx’s plans. “In a couple of years, we’ll have a more holistic review with the librarians and some specialists coming in. The Commons took a full year of studying and planning before things really started. We had to have a budget plan, and the same thing has to happen with the library, but it’s kind of a sequence,” he said.

fares_chehabi@asl.org