Thursday, January 20, 2011

Are modernist school buildings endangered?

I am hearing more frequently of local 1950s and 1960s modernist schools threatened with demolition. Within the community where I work specifically there are three mid-century modern schools currently slated to be demolished and rebuilt. 'Teardowns' are happening in early to mid-twentieth century neighborhoods across the country, replacing an older property with a massive McMansion that is out of scale and often incompatible with the surrounding character of the neighborhood. Are the nation's mid-century schools the next victim in this epidemic?

I sure hope not.  Many mid-century schools were constructed as large, sprawling complexes with sturdy materials that easily adapt to the educational needs of today's students. Modernist schools often tend to have a unique connection to the outdoors in the form of interior courtyards, covered outdoor canopies, and glass curtain or window walls. I would assume that most can be successfully rehabilitated if in good structural condition, resulting in enormous cost savings, recycling of materials, and conservation of 'embodied energy.' For a great article on saving historic schools, click here to visit the National Trust's blog.

I completely understand the need to update systems for energy efficiency and safety, but I don't understand the wholesale destruction of the building for simply being outdated or too small when it has the potential to be renovated for a different use.  Seems like such a waste....and why aren't life-cycle-cost analysis reports performed on every proposal to demolish and rebuild these schools?

In the case of one local school threatened with demolition, it opened its doors in 1962 with 600 students and today the enrollment sits at only 349 students. Yet, school administrators are still calling for more space.  Some endangered mid-century schools are actually buildings located on college campuses. NC State University plans to demolish one of its modernist landmarks, the current bookstore in the Talley Student Center. The bookstore is one of the few great examples of mid-century architecture remaining on NC State's campus and showcases unique folding or "zig-zag" canopies. View photos of the Talley Student Center and read the full article at Goodnight, Raleigh!

Perhaps I am in the dark--have educational facilities really changed that much in the past fifty years for the space requirement to increase that much? Or is it another example of our 'American Big' epidemic? Would love to hear your thoughts!!

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