Well here it is. The first entry in my Columbus countdown (or rather my top Columbus buildings not designed by a Saarinen). Today we start with #5- an elementary school by architect John Johansen.
Beginning in the late 1950s, the Columbus architecture program attempted to reshape the town's educational landscape with architects like Harry Weese, Gunnar Birkerts, and Eliot Noyes designing radical buildings for the school system. The result? A pretty impressive assemblage of schools. But only one- the L. Frances Smith Elementary School stayed with me.
Completed in 1969, the L. Frances Smith Elementary School is no ordinary educational institution. At first glance, the raw concrete and woven system of metal tubes seem a bit disorienting, a challenge to the traditional notions of what a school should look like. Designed by celebrated modernist John Johansen, a member of the Harvard Five, the school, like its architect, is not rigid or resistant to change. It bends and evolves, reveling in happy accidents rather than adhering to a immutable formality. When designing the elementary school, Johansen invoked the endless potential of humanity, the design's honest and direct, maybe even happy, program capable of meeting the needs of the present before adapting to the needs of the future.
To meet the administration's desire for a building conducive to team teaching and open instruction techniques (based on the "continual progress" curriculum), Johansen designed an adaptable structure that could accommodate the school's fluctuating processes. The classrooms, designed to be prefabricated so more space could be easily added over time (a thoughtful expansion was designed in the late 1990s by Christen Johansen), radiate out from a central courtyard and are connected by a series of brightly colored circulation tubes (a bit reminiscent of those used by gerbils). The metal tubes crisscross the large open lot, meeting at glass nodes that offer deliberate views of the outdoors. Like a brutalist labyrinth, the building is provocatively fractured, its fixed infrastructure sketched in concrete while its open system of light steel elements are free to adjust and adapt (steel components could be "clipped on" to the concrete members in various arrangements). Overall, there is an explicit distinction between the unfinished concrete forms and the colorful sheet metal. It is a tangle of hard and flexible surfaces responsive to a child's mental and physical growth.
Radical? Yes. Riotous? Maybe. But the L. Frances Smith Elementary School remains an intriguing functional solution. Designed to represent the processes of nature, life, and education, the school seems happily unorthodox, its anxious energy in constant motion. Borrowing from both brutalism and the concurrent work of Archigram, the highly fragmented school is an accessible system capable of change, a design prizing function over form. Even more importantly though, the building actually acts like a school (supposedly children love it), meeting the demands of an academic community.
And on one last note- John Johansen's rebellious school design represents a shift in the architect's approach during the late 1960s and early 1970s. In many ways, the school echoes his more renowned design for Mummers Theatre (1970) in Oklahoma City. Designed during the same period, both buildings utilized the philosophical vocabulary of systems theory to create unpredictable works of architecture. Unfortunately, the misunderstood Mummers Theatre was (heartbreakingly) demolished in 2014. You can see it here.
Stayed tuned for #4 on the Columbus countdown later this week.
This architectural historian cannot stop thinking about buildings, food, and that vintage rug she found online.