Small Firm Moves Mountains

Tom Harris, Hedrich Blessing/Courtesy Team A

In Chicago’s Austin neighborhood on the Far West Side, Team A, a small-but-nimble Chicago practice, recently saw its completed design for Moving Everest Charter School. The newly opened elementary school is located across the street from the By The Hand Club For Kids (BTHC), an after-school program facility also designed by Team A that opened two years ago. BTHC recently won the AIA Chicago chapter’s 2015 Distinguished Building Award, making it the smallest firm to receive this honor. The charter school continues its older sibling’s sleek aesthetic with shiny corrugated metal panels, calculated bursts of bright color, and modest but emphatic volumetric play.

Large graphic numerals and bright colors provide wayfinding throughout the school.

Moving Everest Charter School and the BTHC are separate nonprofit organizations, with the BTHC renting the new building to the school. The two entities strategically share the space; BTHC uses the facilities after hours. The architects employed graphic techniques to signify the building’s dual uses, particularly along the south facade where supergraphic gray-scale images of studious children (part of the BTHC’s branding, also visible across the street) are framed by glowing green-colored concrete (the signature hue of Moving Everest) and a giant “ME” logo.

Though the exterior signifies newness and innovation for the neighborhood, it’s the interior of the building that is the most spatially sensitive and memorable. Students and visitors are welcomed into a soaring double-height foyer filled with natural light streaming in from an upper clerestory. Nonorthogonal walls on the ground level are intentionally and visibly misaligned with the irregular footprint of the mezzanine above, challenging students to venture forth and explore the building’s internal quirks and spatial complexities. The large expanses of the foyer’s walls and ceiling are painted white, while the open passages into the rest of the school reveal vibrant greens and yellows; eight-foot-tall numeral graphics on the wall indicate the floor level.

Breakout rooms and a computer lab populate the core of each academic floor. The school’s public spaces between these shared amenities constitute the programmatic centerpiece of the school. Here, boldly colored flooring, walls, and ceilings; playful interior windows; and custom wood bookcases render the spaces in between classrooms as charged zones in which to tell and stage stories, interact informally with students from other classrooms, and engage with the unexpected. “We didn’t have room for a library, so we made a library,” Team A principal Joe Buehler said, referring to the makeshift book storage and seating facilitated by the built-in casework and cubbies.Moving Everest Charter School demonstrates how aesthetic precision can make an otherwise conventional rectilinear building into something distinctive and pleasurable. Additionally, by employing its transit-facing south facade (with vantage points from both the Laramie Green Line “L” station and the adjacent commuter-rail Metra tracks) as a billboard promoting its host institutions, the graphic architecture reinforces messages of opportunity, humanism, and optimism in an underinvested Chicago neighborhood.

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