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Two schools of thought: Brooks + Scarpa and Ehrlich Architects in LA

A pair of new schools in Los Angeles bring fresh architectural and pedagogical thinking to an overloaded educational system

Once a leader in public education, the United States is now a laggard. The Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) is too large to manage effectively; local critics see it as a dinosaur that cannot respond to changing needs. In reaction to the poor performance of many public schools and a union that shields deficient teachers, charter schools have flourished. These are non-profit, tuition-free academies supported by public funds and private donations. Daly Genik’s Camino Nuevo School (AR November 2002) is one, an exemplar of inventive low-cost architecture that responds to the needs of a multicultural community.

Green Dot, a non-profit organisation established in 1999, currently operates 22 charter academies in LA and other cities, often taking over failing public schools and dramatically improving their academic standards. Principals are encouraged to take full responsibility, reward the better teachers, discipline students and staff who don’t make the grade, and insist that parents become actively involved. It’s an appealing alternative for the majority of residents who cannot afford private schools.

An open staircase rises behind a protecting layer of white brise-soliel

An open staircase rises behind a protecting layer of white brise-soliel (click to enlarge)

Animo Leadership School

The Animo Leadership School in Lennox, a tough, impoverished neighbourhood in south-central LA, is the Green Dot flagship. Brooks + Scarpa was selected on the basis of their affordable housing, and they created a model of compactness and sustainability on the skinny corner site, which was formerly occupied by a church. Most LA schools use only a fifth of their land; here the buildings cover 85 per cent of the site and a gymnasium is to be built a block to the north.

Security was crucial in this densely populated high- crime area, and so was noise abatement from a nearby freeway and aircraft flying low into LAX. Working on a modest budget and tight schedule, the architects met all of these challenges and created a complex that feels more open and spacious than it really is.

Site Plan

Site Plan (click to enlarge)

Brooks + Scarpa were inspired by the schools that New Orleans architects Curtis & Davis built in the early 1950s in Louisiana. There, in a poor state with a hot, humid climate, they designed narrow blocks with no corridors, allowing classrooms to be naturally lit and ventilated from both sides, and accessed by multiple staircases.

At Animo, a three-storey bar of classrooms extends to the street line on the south and west sides. The budget of £17 million (about £2,000 a square metre) mandated a simple, steel-frame structure and straightforward plan, but the architects cranked the bar to impart a sense of energy. A narrow courtyard separates the classrooms from a shorter three-storey block with administrative offices at ground level, laboratories and a library on the two upper levels. A mid-level bridge spans the divide.

Ground, First and Second Floor Plans

Ground, First and Second Floor Plans (click to enlarge)

Staff and the 500 teenage students enter through an undercroft to the south, which is flanked by a brightly coloured cafeteria. Open-sided galleries along the north side provide access to the upper-level classrooms, and bleachers flank the stair leading up to the labs. The four open steel staircases double as gathering areas, and the compressed open spaces on different levels create a lively social interaction.

Teachers can reconfigure their classrooms to break up the serried rows of desks and move around freely. As Lawrence Scarpa explains, ‘we designed the circulation for the five minutes between classes, and envisaged the school as a social experience, not merely a machine for learning’.

‘We designed the circulation for the five minutes between classes and envisaged the school as a social experience, not merely as a machine for learning’

The 90-metre-long south facade and roof are clad with 650 solar panels that deflect heat and glare, furnish 75 per cent of the school’s energy needs, and should reduce carbon emissions over the life of the school by about 1.4 million kg. To avert monotony on this reflective expanse, the windows are irregularly spaced; some project and others are concealed by the solar panels. The east end is screened with angled louvres of perforated metal, and the west by a lattice of blue steel rods.

Section AA showing principles of environmental control

Section AA showing principles of environmental control (click to enlarge)

Charter schools are a public-private hybrid with an uneven record thus far, but Green Dot has raised the graduation rate from about 55 to 80 per cent, bringing order to schools that were out of control.

Its success has acted as a catalyst, spurring the LAUSD to make a few long-overdue reforms. In a major, bond-funded building programme, now nearing completion, the board allowed a few talented architects to propose innovative buildings. And it decided to break up the largest campuses into small learning centres (SLCs) giving each a measure of autonomy and allowing teenagers to study together for four years without being lost in a crowd.

Linda Esperanza Marquez High School

Ehrlich Architects has previously built an LAUSD middle school in an industrial neighbourhood, and they were selected to design the Linda Esperanza Marquez High School in Huntington Park, an independent municipality in the Alameda Corridor, which runs south from LA to its port in San Pedro. Yet thanks to bureaucratic foot-dragging, it took seven years to realise.

The red pitched roofs of the long, linear school complex echo the tiles of the surrounding buildings. The school is named after an activist who led a 20-year campaign to have toxic concrete debris from a collapsed freeway removed from the site

The red pitched roofs of the long, linear school complex echo the tiles of the surrounding buildings. The school is named after an activist who led a 20-year campaign to have toxic concrete debris from a collapsed freeway removed from the site (click to enlarge)

In 2005, Steven Ehrlich and his team engaged in a three-day charrette and presented three schemes, and the one that was accepted was completed in late 2012. Though the six-hectare site was much larger than the one in Lennox, it presented similar challenges. The buildings had to be set back 150 metres from a freight rail tunnel and a sawmill, while respecting the residential scale to the east and south.

New schools have to do double duty as community centres, so the playing field, gym and library were made accessible to the public when not in use by teachers and students.

Site Plan

Site Plan (click to enlarge)

Huntington Park’s population has become overwhelmingly Latino and they would have preferred a design in the same Mediterranean style as the 1947 City Hall. By law, all LAUSD projects have to be presented for three reviews by the community, and be approved by the City Council and the State Architect’s office. That lengthy process often discourages or derails innovation, but Ehrlich was confident he could achieve something worthwhile. ‘If you meet the programme, stay on budget, and pitch a good story, they are quite open,’ he insists, sounding like an optimistic Hollywood director.

To break up the mass of a school for 1,620 students, Ehrlich designed a long classroom block on the east side of the site with separate floors for three SLCs, each with its own character and specialised curriculum. Shared facilities are ranged around the other sides to create a secure perimeter.

Though LAUSD mandates bars on ground-level windows, ‘We didn’t want students to feel caged in, so we developed sheets of perforated aluminum laminated within the double glazing that admit light and allow you to look out,’ says project architect Whitney Wyatt.

Section AA

Section AA (click to enlarge)

There’s a single level of underground parking and an internal pedestrian street linking the academic facilities to the athletic fields and a pool in an L-plan parcel to the north. The two gyms − one doubling as an assembly hall and performance space − are linked by a roof plane and lit from a broad band of Excelite, a double layer of ribbed polycarbonate. The roof plane is extended to the south and west to shade the expansive glazing of the library block and an outdoor dining area that extends from the cafeteria.

Smaller windows in the classroom block are placed to provide abundant natural lighting while creating a lively rhythm on the facades. A massive steel staircase is embedded in the classroom block and provides a central gathering place overlooking the entire campus. A few windows can be opened, but the entire building relies on air conditioning. In part this is a response to noise, atmospheric pollution and the distance from cool ocean breezes; in part to inflexible LAUSD regulations.

Ground, First and Second Floor Plans

Ground, First and Second Floor Plans (click to enlarge)

The muscular steel frame of the buildings is exposed, and the facades are clad in a red-yellow chequerboard of corrugated metal panels above an olive-green stucco base. These vibrant colours are echoed in the concrete paving, and arched entry portals to the school and the football stand provide another link to the native culture of local residents.

The poured concrete arches were inspired by the work of Irving Gill, a Modernist pioneer who created a taut version of Mission-style architecture nearly a century ago. Inclined roof membranes are red to evoke expanses of tiles, and they conceal rooftop mechanical equipment. In the lively palette of colours and materials, and the clarity of layout, Ehrlich has achieved an admirable balance of urbanity and economy, though it’s much less sustainable than he would have liked.

The expressive colour palate is used throughout, including the facades where it softens the buildings bulk

The expressive colour palate is used throughout, including the facades where it softens the buildings bulk

Taken together, these two schools − the first ground-up building for Green Dot, a modest experiment by LAUSD − may serve as models for future construction, and encourage a fresh approach to an education system that is failing society and the kids who need its help.

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