A modernist form is rising from the rubble of an asphalt jungle right here in Montclair.
What once served the purpose of schoolyard recreation and weekend bicycle lessons for toddlers is now the repository of a splendid new building in our midst.
Since groundbreaking during last year's summer recess and completion scheduled for the 2014 school year, the new Montclair school classroom and multipurpose building has been growing before our eyes.
When completed, its 10 new classrooms and multipurpose room will house and help educate future generations of children and inspire residents as they pass by on Mountain Boulevard. At the moment, the building's spindly steel strands and plywood skin are still in the larval stage, its facade still in disguise. But by the beginning of the next school year, our neighborhood will be graced with an expression of the current wave of energy-efficient and sustainable minimalist design. The building's hard edges and angular appearance will show a level of sophistication and technology that would make a Silicon Valley startup proud.
The village we have all come to love and feel safe in hasn't been visited by serious architecture in any form for many years. The most recent and largest undertaking, the bland and predictable frontage of our local Lucky supermarket, formerly the Albertsons, is as disappointing now as it was the day it opened. It's been nearly 100 years since the renowned architect Julia Morgan gave us the now shuttered "Hansel and Gretel" fire station on Moraga Avenue, which was fanciful but far from her strongest effort. Generally speaking, architecture doesn't cause people to perform back flips as it tends to act more on our subconscious. But good design wafts over us like fresh air, life-sustaining yet elusive and indefinable. When done well, it challenges our senses and lifts our spirits.
With Measure B approval for the bond money to finance it along with the collective wisdom of the Oakland Unified School District administration, inspiration ensued. The district awarded the design to the firm of Gould Evans Architects, based in Kansas City, Mo., with a branch here in San Francisco. Some of the firm's past work includes the Bio Design Institute at Arizona State University in Tempe, Ariz.; the Laney Field House at Laney College; the Cuvaison Estate Wines tasting and barrel rooms in the Carneros wine district in Napa Valley; and the NOAA Southwest Fisheries Science Center in La Jolla. These past works give the new school a distinguished pedigree right out of the gate.
Lead architect Bob Baum stressed the leadership that the school district displayed in order to bring the project to fruition.
Baum characterized the project as " ... a straightforward community engagement process," which sounds simple enough, but the effort is formidable to say the least. Principal Nancy Bloom played an equally important role, ensuring that the design process engaged all of the stakeholders who have an interest in the project: parents, teachers, neighbors and students. They have all made considerable sacrifices since construction began, braving the noise and disruption that such an undertaking inflicts.
"The school district has made a very strong commitment to sustainability," Baum stressed. "This has provided direction and inspiration for the design team."
Oakland schools made the important step of adapting the CA CHPS register. It's a scoring system similar to the LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification process. The acronym stands for "California -- Collaborative for High Performance Schools," which aside from a focus on the use and implementation of green building materials, delivers environmental and health benefits to a building's occupants.
Siting or positioning a new building is critical to its success, and the architects have done a superb job with this one. They've aligned the long axis with the once asphalt-covered earthen berm that lies between it and the upper parking lot and drop-off area. It's neatly tucked in so the structure appears as a single story when viewed from Mountain Boulevard. The neighbors across the street retain their views of Montclair Park, and the tall redwoods continue to provide a serene and verdant backdrop to the building's western elevation.
Abutting the berm on its south facing side, a bridge has been built to facilitate access and egress to the building's upper level, creating a sense of anticipation and excitement while crossing. Underneath, planters running parallel to the length of the building will create green streams as you pass overhead. Its functionality is indisputable, but its allure lies in the enticement of height, which in a child's mind could conjure images of crossing canyons and divides.
A broad canopy that projects from the main roof is an inverted welcoming mat offering protection from the elements and signaling safe passage to all who enter. A second bridge will connect the Mountain Boulevard frontage to the school. Beyond the bridge, after entering, a broad staircase will usher students down to the to the new inner courtyard which replaces the loathsome portables that no one will miss.
The layout of the new classrooms is what's referred to as "single loading." This means that instead of being divided by a center hallway, the new classrooms will be aligned in a single file on both levels, allowing passive air flow that will cool and warm classrooms as the need arises.
This is adaptable architecture at its simplest and best.
Other exciting features of the building include a "live roof" sitting squarely atop the new multipurpose room, similar to the one that graces the roof of the California Academy of Sciences in Golden Gate Park. It will do double duty by filtering rain water en route to Lake Temescal and San Francisco Bay and act as an outdoor classroom for observation of the varied plant life that will adorn it. In addition, the original school garden at ground level will be replaced by a larger one creating an interactive growing and teaching environment. The live roof and garden design are by Leslie Golden of Golden Associates, Landscape Architects.
The new multipurpose room is equal in size to its predecessor and the school's auditorium combined. It's an airy, light-filled space that will give the Montclair Elementary School and community a gathering place of nearly unimaginable possibilities. Two glass and steel framed roll-up doors on its west side face the new courtyard and will open the room up to the outside, generously merging indoors and outdoors. The new Montclair school classrooms and multipurpose room is a rebuke to the old way of doing the business of educating our children. Its abundance of natural light, fresh air and greenery inside and out help usher in a new era of learning. Good architecture has arrived right here in Montclair.
Blake Gilmore, of Montclair, has been involved in residential construction for more than 40 years and a general contractor for 30 years. His specialty is recycling (renovating and remodeling) the existing housing stock of single-family homes in the greater Bay Area. He has twice been awarded Preservation Awards for his work by the Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association.