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07.01.2014
Learning Lab
Early childhood school finds lessons in education history.
Barbara Karant

The University of Chicago Laboratory Schools’ newest building draws on old ideas. When designing Earl Shapiro Hall, architects Valerio Dewalt Train Associates (VDTA) and FGM wanted a school that would be ready for changes in education. To predict the future the architects looked to the past, poring over the educational theories of the Lab Schools’ founder, John Dewey.

“He could tell you where education was going in 2014,” said VDTA’s Joe Valerio. Dewey founded the Lab Schools in 1904 on principles that remain relevant today: project-based learning, collaboration, and creativity. Shared learning rooms, natural light, and a wealth of un-programmed space are among the designers’ nods to the schools’ progressive educational philosophy. “The child, not the lesson is the center of the teacher’s attention,” said Dewey, “each student has individual strengths which should be cultivated and grown.”

   
 

Fittingly, the recently completed early childhood learning center was an exercise in learning. Its designers had never done a K-12 school before. So they asked the teachers what they wanted. The teachers compiled a list of forward-thinking educators whose ideas might help predict where education would head over the building’s lifespan. “The whole exercise we went through was very interesting,” said VDTA’s Randy Mattheis, “because it was a level of programming that went way beyond, ‘oh, we need this many classrooms’ and so on.”

Teachers have their own classrooms, but each one is linked to another. The thinking is that pairs of teachers will encourage creativity together. Two shared meeting rooms separate the classroom spaces that teachers can use for collaborative activities.

 
 

Instead of tying every room in the 34-classroom building to a part of the curriculum, the design defers to individual teachers and students to help drive the program. Two 1,000-square-foot learning labs on each of the two classroom floors are open to anyone at any time.

Originally slated for a hotel project, the site is steps from Lake Michigan and Hyde Park’s museum campus, but it is not contiguous with the University of Chicago’s historic campus. That made the property somewhat of a black sheep from many faculty members’ perspective. But the two-acre site was a boon for its designers, who wanted to avoid building their early childhood center too tall. The low, spread-out massing is designed to maximize natural light and access to outdoor space, offering every kindergarten class outside play space.

   
 

“A lot of stuff really worked when we got off the historic campus,” said Mattheis. All the circulation centered around a light-filled courtyard. “So as you move outside of your classroom you’re seeing kids your age, you’re seeing kids engaged in activities, so inside the building there’s a real transparency. It’s part of the vibrancy, of being excited about learning.”

But the new building’s vibrancy may be exacerbating the school’s swollen demand. Already oversubscribed, Lab Schools received twice as many applications for the same number of spots this academic year.

The building itself bears its designers’ own excitement. A geometric pattern inspired by the Fibonacci sequence—the series of numbers behind the golden ratio and many biological structures—orders perforated metal panels on the east- and west-facing glass facades. It plays out again in the north-south layout of the building’s classrooms, and in the strips dividing the terrazzo floor. Vertical metal fins shade the heavily glazed facade.

Like much of the design, that mathematical quirk helps break up the monotony that can characterize institutional buildings. A third-floor library cantilevered over the administration wing’s entry plaza offers views to Lake Michigan and the Museum of Science and Industry, reaching out to a much larger lab for learning.

Chris Bentley