Sunday, April 4, 2010

The Destruction of Sylvia Packard Middle School (and so much more)

In many cases, your life is the result of a million coincidences that you are mostly unaware of. You can't pick who your parents are. You can't control the weather in your part of the world. You probably don't even have a choice as to who your friends are going to be in high school. They end up being the people who are most like you in terms of social standing, appearance, and financial status. With so many people in today's world searching for purpose and understanding, it's important to realize that the path you choose to walk in life is often not your choice at all.

I grew up and went to school in a middle class neighborhood in Long Island. The schools were all sturdy masonry buildings with flat roofs. I loved school. I recently realized that I could remember every detail of each school I attended in my town. From the terrazzo floors of my high school to the golden bricks of my elementary school to the metal railings of my middle school. The floors were always waxed and shiny; the dull black science countertops always felt warm to the touch. All in all, these were sturdy buildings designed by competent architects with an eye for detail. Built in the 60's, all of these buildings are still standing today. At least for now.

What I also recently realized was that these schools subconsciously provided me with a love for architecture; more specifically a love of place. With their large aluminum frame windows, generous natural light, and perfectly executed floor plans, these buildings made my young educational experience a pleasure. I remember the brick lined corridors of my elementary school and running my fingers along the grout lines as our class walked the corridors each day. The grout was tooled to be smooth and curved and perfectly fit young fingers without getting scratched. While I can't remember every teacher I ever had, I can remember every class room I ever sat in. I remember the pull down maps that opened as closed as needed, I remember the Eames-esque bent plywood chairs that we sat in, and I remember how the breezes filled the room when all of the windows were opened. We didn't have air conditioning or even a fan. There was nothing made of plastic.

Now while it sounds like I am romanticizing the experience (and maybe I am) this genuinely relates to the state of things in our society. Everyday I hear people say how our world is degrading around us. Values, Customs, Quality. Everyday we lose a little ground to the future. In the town that I grew up in, there was a vote last June to tear down the middle school that I attended. Of course, this came as no surprise to residents, as the school had been closed for more than a decade as a middle school. In recent years it had been rented out as a day care and for office space, but really the sad and inevitible conclusion was that one day Sylvia Packard Middle School would be torn down. And now this day has arrived.

It would not be so sad if not for the fact that the Board of Education had made a choice some years ago that it would be better to build a new middle school than to 'modernize' the current one. The funny thing about that is that the old school (built in 1964) is far more modern than the new one. With its vaulted concrete bus canopy, it's custom aluminum window facade, curved masonry stair towers, and endless examples of craftsmanship, the comparison is not even close. You could not afford to build a building like this in today's market. The craftsman don't exist and the Architects don't spend this much time on Design. The following pictures are just a sample of the Building's elegance (double click to enlarge):

Now take a look at the school that replaced it (designed by Wiedersun Associates):

While we cannot save every building from the wrecking ball, we can do our best to appreciate the beauty of another's effort in the pursuit of passion. The Sylvia Packard Middle School was designed and constructed with an attention to detail that rivals the work of any great modern Architect. The scale of the building is both human and monumental. The concrete design is economical and poetic. The use of unit masonry as both a giver of structure and a delicate screen creates something bordering on magic when the light dances through it. Schools should not only be places where children get inspired, they should be inspiring. It is both sad and disappointing that the educators of the 1960's were more forward thinking about education than those who are making the decisions more than five decades later.
Looking back, it is easy to see that my passion for Building and Design was greatly inspired by my surroundings. What I can't understand is how we could build schools like this in the 1960's, but we can't build these kinds of buildings today? We have used our technology to engineer the quality out of construction instead of improving it. Instead of masonry, we have foam. Instead of drywall, we have acoustical tile. Instead of terrazzo, we have vinyl flooring. I can only hope that the next Renaissance is around the corner and that future generations will realize that beauty is essential to human happiness. For me, the Sylvia Packard Middle School represents a beauty in constructed form that can serve as an example, even if that example relates to that which should not be destroyed.