Monday, September 14, 2009

Eye of the beholder, Part 1

Mom send me clippings from the local fishwrap--um, newspaper every now and then, and most recently she included an article about the new high school in Booger County, where I went to school. She sent me a picture of the computer rendering from the newspaper last year, and it looked...wretched. The computer rendering made it look like these poor Booger County kids were about to go to high school in a Dickensian 19th-century workhouse. Actually to say the large, super-simple, basic-gable roofed structure that appeared to be made of either brick and CMU (concrete blocks) or two colors of brick looked like a 19th-century factory would have been a compliment; brickwork from 100 years ago is absolutely amazing, even on the most mundane of buildings. Some of the brickwork on old warehouses in LoDo here in Denver is surprising and almost stunning when you think about what these buildings were supposed to do--today, these types of building have been replaced by all-metal tilt-up Butler buildings. So, yeah, the rendering not only looked really primitive (seriously, everyone reading this blog can download SketchUp and make a better rendering than what was printed in the paper), but it also looked drab, uninspiring, and horrible. "Are they getting the kids ready to go to prison?" I asked my mom. "Because if so, they'll feel right at home when they go to Reidsville [Georgia's state prison]."

So, Mom sends me the article about the new high school, a three-story structure that turned out to look marginally better than the rendering. It was slightly less-workhouse-looking, but still really pedestrian to the point of being completely unimaginative. The interior shot of the high school was simple but respectable--steel tube railings around a double-height space, VCT floors, and paint on the walls. I have to give the designers props for doing a three-color floor pattern in the atrium with VCT and using a darker paint color on the upper foot or so of the school's interior walls. Proof positive that you can do nice things with low-cost materials and make something look really good.

Which brings me back to the outside and the building as a whole. One of the students was quoted as saying that the new Booger County High School building might be the "nicest high school in the state of Georgia." I can flatly and without equivocation disagree. Just a few miles from my sister's house is Small Town High, which even at about 50 years old is a nicer looking building than the new BCHS. Guy commented, upon seeing the newspaper photos, that they probably had jack squat for a budget, and I'm betting he's right. But still, you can do really nice stuff with simple brick and trusses, people. I've seen interior designers make amazing things happen with VCT and a little sheet vinyl. Hell, you stain and seal plain old concrete and make it look high-end--check the floor of any Einstein's Bagels, or nearly any coffee shop for that matter.

At first, I questioned my reaction to the photos and the article: was I just being a elitist architectural jerk? Was I acting towards this new building the way the starchitects of the world react towards my simple little hospitals in rural Kansas? Maybe. I can't rule out that fact that I'm indulging in my all-purpose designer bitchitude. But here's why it broke my heart. That student the paper quoted was going on and on about how the school might be the nicest in Georgia, and how it's a highlight for Booger County and a model for other schools to follow, and all I can think is YOU CAN HAVE IT SO MUCH BETTER. I've built hospitals on shoestring budgets and still given them spaces that look beautiful, inspiring, uplifting, amazing. This building does not inspire me--it makes me feel even more "meh" than I used to when I looked at my old school building because it simply puts brick on a metal panel bus barn and calls it good. The forms are uninspiring, the use of materials is pedantic, and the whole thing looks from the outside like the school's board went into a coma in 1996 and just woke up, but the architects built them a building that looks like 1996 so they wouldn't be all shocked at how much time has passed, like an architectural version of GoodBye Lenin! I guess all the kids will be required to carry around Discmans that play Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch while they're at school, hiding their iPods and cell phones until they round the bend out of sight from the school. Sad.

As I read the student's comments, I thought to myself, "Of course you think it's gorgeous--if you're surrounded by nothing but Wal-Mart and trailers, this building is the frickin' Emerald City." I then thought back to my first year of architecture school at Georgia Tech, and I was amazed by all the really cool designs my fellow students came up with. How did they think that up? Where had they seen it? WTF? I often wondered to myself if my own designs were so normative and bland because I myself had grown up in a visually vanilla world. But at that moment I thought, "Why are we afraid to push these students, this town a little bit? Why are we afraid to give them a little more visual oomph? It feels like we're preparing these kids to never leave Booger County."

I'm not done mulling this topic over...

1 comment:

Wilderness Gina said...

Responding to the last sentence... WELL DUHHHH!!!!!
Seriously you guys it looks better than I thought it would... oh SAD.