A recently completed school project by Brooks + Scarpa in Los Angeles aims to soften the severity of new school security measures by focusing on formal exuberance and textured materiality to create a series of perforated metal panel-covered learning sheds that also happen to be bulletproof.

With the project, Animo South Los Angeles Charter High—a public charter school located in South L.A’s Westmont neighborhood—aims to bounce back from a devastating 2014 fire that wiped out half the campus. The school has not been directly been involved in a shooting, but violence plagues portions of the surrounding local community. Because the school is located near the sites of several gang-related shootings—the complex has been hit by unintended drive-by gunfire in the past—the new facilities are designed to higher security standards than might otherwise be the case. Four years after the blaze, Brooks + Scarpa have delivered a new 630-student structure that aims for “fresh air and daylight” in its public spaces as well as “a safe and secure environment for leaning and social engagement,” according to the architects.

The complex lights up from within at night. (Tara Wujcik)

The C-shaped complex contains eleven classrooms in all, as well as two science labs, a faculty lounge, and new administrative and counseling offices that are all linked by exterior walkways wrapped in see-thru metal paneling.

For the project, the architects aim to harness new safety-focused design considerations in a way that does not limit design possibilities or produce windowless, hardened spaces. Site requirements for the project demanded a perimeter security wall that was not only 20 feet tall, but could also repel bullets. By placing the bulk of the classrooms along this outermost edge of the site and wrapping those elements in solid walls and expanses of bulletproof curtain walls, the designers appealed to multiple requirements at once. Providing transparency and rigidity together, the perimeter walls—almost totally wrapped in reflective perforated yellow panels—appear solid during the day, when they catch the sunlight. But at night, the volumes glow from within, revealing the silhouettes of the building’s interiors.

Axonometric diagram of the project. (Courtesy Brooks+Scarpa)

The perimeter wall maneuver also opened up the possibility of locating a generous courtyard within the complex, creating a plaza that could potentially unify and uplift the campus. Following a footprint derived from the intersecting mix of easements and setbacks the define the site’s buildable area, the single-story complex rises as a seemingly monolithic cluster of three buildings that sit just far enough apart from one another to leave exit corridors in between. These spare and rectilinear circulation spaces are bound by canted walls and connect to the large semi-circular courtyard along the edge of the site facing the existing school. Here, the circular plaza is inscribed with a rounded planter while a linear stone bench cuts across the expanse. Wynne Landscape Design was the landscape architect on the project.

The yellow scrim creates a variable and permeable semi-circular edge around the courtyard, cutting into an internal walkway on one end and punctured by a large picture window looking into an administrative office on the other. The courtyard brings daylight into the complex and allows for views to stretch through the building, a boost to the eyes-on-the-street approach of contemporary school safety design. The steel truss-supported scrim is visible from inside the classroom and office spaces, some of which feature direct connections to the exterior spaces formed by the wall and the classroom.

View of the principal’s office. (Tara Wujcik)

Larry Scarpa, principal of Brooks + Scarpa, said, “There are many issues to solve [in school design]—including safety—but without a vibrant learning environment, the kids are the only people who suffer.” Scarpa explained the project also featured high ceilings—the 13- to 20-foot ceilings in the classrooms—which the designers provided by leaving the structural ceilings exposed, with a layer of blue jean insulation left open for all to see. “Studies have shown that students score higher and score better with higher ceilings and ceilings that are painted blue,” Scarpa explained.

The school is in the process of moving into the spaces and will come online later this fall in time for the 2018-2019 school year.

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