Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, is a long way from Texas where Lake/Flato, an Austin-based firm, has a reputation for their site- and climate-sensitive work, including the Lance Armstrong Foundation in Austin and the award-winning World Birding Center in Mission, Texas. But the architects (and winners of the 2004 AIA Firm Award) are no strangers to school design, having completed over a dozen academic buildings for private institutions, independent schools, and state universities. And that is what made them ideal for the job of adding a new middle school for girls to the Kingswood School at Cranbrook.
One of the earliest and most detailed of the Cranbrook buildings by Eliel Saarinen (and members of his family, including a young Eero) in the 1930s, the original Kingswood School for Girls, according to project architect Brantley Hightower, was designed when Saarinen was in his “Wrightian phase,” creating buildings with an intense sense of craft and a complex array of scales and materials. For a new middle school for girls located where a meadow meets the woods on the 300-acre campus, Lake/Flato were charged with matching the richness of the original on a budget of less than $200 per square foot.
Lake/Flato approached the 48,000-square-foot school in a way they hoped would resonate with Saarinen’s “fusing of craft with the leading technologies of the day,” Hightower said. They especially sought to copy his manner of connecting buildings to the landscape and weaving craft into the fabric of structure, no easy task on a skimpy budget. Their solution was to cluster classrooms around three commons, each with its own pavilion or “box” that provided a special experience, whether dance studio, stage, or theater, and each with the built-in seating to accommodate those activities. Throughout, “nodes of craft,” often maple elements, were added at terminating points to heighten impact.
Partner-in-charge Greg Papay noted that much of Lake/Flato’s work is based in climates warmer than the weather on the wind-swept plains of Michigan. In Texas, even large buildings can be open to the outside yearlong, while here a more modulated approach was necessary. “We learned from Saarinen about creating cloistered views into intimate spaces, but also across larger views,” said Papay about making the commons both open outdoor spaces but also protected from the elements.
Materials had to be simple, but Lake/Flato also wanted them to be both local and textured. They used a masonry concrete block from a local source and composed of an aggregate flecked with Michigan’s own colored stones. A glazed brick that has been used in other buildings, along with judicious touches of copper and warm maple used on the interiors, complete a surprisingly rich palette.
The Cranbrook Kingswood Girls’ Middle School, scheduled for completion by November, is situated not far from other recent buildings on the campus including Steven Holl’s Institute of Science (1996) and Tod Williams and Billie Tsien’s Natatorium (1999). “We may have had a low budget,” said Papay, “but our aim was to tie into the history while still giving the school all the excitement of the other new buildings at Cranbrook.”