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Published in Print: November 1, 2003, as Building Blocks

Building Blocks

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Set in corrugated metal and concrete, two schools on opposite sides of the country represent architectural flights of fancy—and more literal ones as well. At one, Jennifer Lopez landed in the center of the quad in a helicopter to shoot a scene for the movie The Cell. At the other, the buildings themselves were airborne, their prefabricated halves hoisted into place by a crane.

Flash and function, permanence and portability. Shaped in part by budgetary pressures and state mandates, each set of buildings offers a wildly different take on what the school of tomorrow might look like.

Diamond Ranch High School in Pomona, California.
Diamond Ranch High School in Pomona, California.


—Photos by Brian Finke

Name: Diamond Ranch High School
Location: Pomona, California
Designer: Thom Mayne, Morphosis
Size: 150,000 square feet 
Students: 1,900 
Cost: $47.2 million overall, including $1 for donated hilltop site
Rationale: Architects were asked for a design that reflects the concepts of "optimism, flexibility, and personalization."

Designed by Thom Mayne, Diamond Ranch High School in Pomona, California [see pages 30-31], has won architectural awards, starred in dozens of movies and commercials, and inspired a book about its construction—all while adhering to the same budgetary restraints placed on all California public schools. Principal David Linzey is quick to acknowledge Diamond Ranch's unique architecture—two buildings decked out with jagged ridges of corrugated metal perched on a hilltop overlooking the Pomona Valley. At the same time, he points to its academic credentials, including its recent selection as a California Distinguished School, and the good relations among its diverse student body as proof that appearance is a means to an end. He says that ample natural light makes it easier for students to take notes as teachers lecture using the school's 55 electronic projectors, that the breathtaking vistas inspire creativity, and that the football-field-length center quad provides a gathering place for the entire school.

"One student actually made the comment that the architecture all points upward, and that opens their minds," Linzey adds. "That's a pretty wild comment from a kid."

Palm Beach Gardens High School, Florida.
Palm Beach Gardens High School, Florida.
Palm Beach Gardens High School, Florida.


—Photos by Andrew Itkoff

Name: Concretables
Location: 750 units at dozens of schools across Florida, including Palm Beach Gardens High School
Designer: Wally Sanger, Royal Concrete Concepts
Size: 864 to 960 square feet per unit, including optional bathroom
Students: Typically 25 per classroom
Cost: Varies by specifications, but averages $60,000 per unit
Rationale: Each concretable provides a portable structure that meets state building codes and has the look and feel of a permanent building.

On the other side of the country, at Palm Beach Gardens High School, in Florida, the portable buildings that Wally Sanger designed [see pages 32-33] aren't likely to be featured in Architectural Digest anytime soon. But they, too, fill needs brought about by the vagaries of tropical weather and a new state constitutional amendment limiting class sizes. Called "concretables," a term Sanger has trademarked, the modular buildings are constructed using a combination of concrete and polystyrene foam, giving the structures the strength to resist hurricane-force winds while remaining light enough to be carried on a truck.

What the concretables lack in visual excitement, they make up for with their open, bright classrooms, a definite improvement over more typical trailer- size portables and even aging schools, says Dean Locke, chief operating officer of Royal Concrete Concepts, in Palm Beach. In fact, much of the company's business involves replacing worn-out portable classrooms across the state with concretables, which appear poised to capture a sizable chunk of the projected$4 billion needed to comply with the class-size amendment approved by Florida voters in 2002.

"They're permanent structures," Locke says. "In many cases, they have a greater structural capacity than the school." In other words, they're here to stay.

—Mark Toner

Vol. 15, Issue 3, Pages 29-33

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