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Design Puts Two Schools On The Map Hartford Firm's Work Exemplifies Idea Of Creating Sense Of Place


February 08, 2009

One of the more popular ideas in architectural design circles right now is the notion of a "signature" architectural style. Signature styles result in the use of virtually the same design aesthetic no matter what the building's location or purpose. Think of architects like Frank Gehry and you get the idea. Clients hire Gehry because they want a Gehry a building that is immediately notable for its star architect's signature style.

This is also, I believe, a recipe for "placeless" design that adds to the uneasy sense that every place is kind of like anyplace else.

An alternative design approach that can result in longer-lasting architectural quality is to let the building's aesthetic be shaped by where it is, and what one hopes to achieve in designing architecture with a sense of place. The results can be radically different-looking buildings from the hand of the same architect. But look deeper and you'll find a consistency a dedication to the idea that architecture's most important job is give our built world an identity that contributes to and grows from local history, culture and circumstances: architecture with a sense of place.

Good examples of this design principle at work are two schools designed by DuBose Associates, a Hartford-based architecture firm. The Sport and Medical Sciences Academy, on a tight site just south of Dillon Stadium in the Coltsville section of Hartford, is a riot of color, shapes and textured metal.

Designed for 725 students in grades 7-12, the new building has allowed this popular magnet school to expand its programs that focus on careers in sports, sports medicine, sports marketing and medical sciences. The building nudges right up next to I-91 south, so it is hard to miss even at 65 mph. You look out over this assemblage of steel mesh, corrugated silver siding, striped brick, red roofs, green windows and bright yellow trim, and you wonder, "Wow, what is that?" You want to get off at the next exit and check it out.

But the materials and colors have a local connection, DuBose architects Craig Saunders and Harvey Leibin point out. Much of the architectural history and culture of Coltsville is distinguished by the factory aesthetic of brick boxes, steel windows and machine-like details. The school's aesthetic also captures the excitement of sports fast, colorful and attention-grabbing.

This design approach is taken right into the building. Just inside the front entrance is a large public space the hub of the school where students and faculty circulate through the 158,000-square-foot building. This entry hall allows you to look right through the building. Along one side there are vertical pylons that make up a vibrant exhibit of Connecticut sports legends and historical figures. At the center of the space is a dynamic sculptural cage of bright red metal mesh wrapping a three-story stair. DuBose uses more vibrant colors throughout this large building to help students and faculty to navigate.

Over at Tunxis Community College in Farmington, DuBose has designed a new library and classroom building that aesthetically is completely different from the Hartford school but achieves the same end it gives a "placeless" campus a focus and an identity.

Tunxis occupies a site at the corner of Routes 177 and 6 that at one time was a strip mall. The problem was that all of the buildings turned inward, so that their backsides faced the highway (not the smartest marketing move). The architects started by looking at the entire campus and completing a master plan (done with Rickes Associates). The plan called for getting rid of some of the old buildings and constructing new facilities that would face Routes 177 and 6, to give Tunxis a public face.

The plan is phased, but the first few pieces have already changed the character and identity of the school. Most stunning is the new library extending along Route 177 toward the Route 6 intersection. The architecture is classically inspired, with substantial brick walls, a clock tower marking the vehicular entrance to campus (all of the students commute), and a temple-like, two-story facade crowned with a sloped roof.

The architects suggest the 19th-century Greek Revival style, popular on many New England campuses, as inspiration. More important than the architectural history lesson is the fact that the blue-gray facade creates a stage set for students to occupy the long quadrangle that was previously open-ended and "placeless" as a result. Inside the library, the underside of the sloped roof is visible and adds architectural gravitas there is no doubt that this is the academic center of Tunxis.

Another new building splices into the library to the north, then reaches to the corner, makes a turn to the east, and rambles along Route 6. There is a lot going on here classrooms, labs, meeting rooms, offices, student service spaces.

Without a doubt the most important is a two-story cafe/lounge right at the corner. In contrast to the rest of the building's brick walls, dormers and sloped roofs, the cafe is completely glassed in, its interior visible from the busy corner. The lounge is a popular spot to hang out at this commuter school, and its windows allow one to watch the world go by (at least this little corner of Farmington). The building also invites the world to look inside, and serves as a bright beacon on the corner.

"This is the place," the architecture says.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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