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Not Just Another Brick in the Wall
By Shawn Stone
photos By john whipple

The dramatic exterior of Albany’s newest public school gives innovative form to function

‘It looks like a South Beach condo.” Well, not exactly, but the person who thus described the Albany City School District’s new Stephen and Harriet Myers Middle School could be forgiven the hyperbole. It’s a striking building.

From the Elbel Court entrance off Whitehall Road, the school is on your right as you drive or walk in. The first thing you notice is the long curving wall of the three-story academic wing directly in front of you, which leads to a soaring glass-and-blue-metal atrium at the center of the school. The gray-and-white wall doesn’t so much curve, as . . . well, it looks like it was stopped in the middle of an undulating movement. The atrium, which also incorporates the main entrance, is the real attention-grabber, however. It juts—soars—out from the front of the building.

Then, you suddenly realize that the academic wing doesn’t directly abut the soaring “centerpiece.” Beginning just before the academic wing meets the atrium, there’s an abrupt shift in architectural style that continues on the other side of it and carries over to the rest of the school structure: The school becomes more formal, box-shaped. The lime-green color scheme and Bauhaus-like banks of windows, however, keep it from seeming too boxy, and suggest a balance of play and order that is, if you think about it, quite appropriate for a middle school.

The whole complex is a bold statement, an affirmation of the future of public education in the city of Albany.

Considering the contentious, drawn-out process that preceded the middle school’s construction, this boldness of purpose and design is, frankly, a surprise. The original $176 million facilities plan—which is a complete reworking of the city’s school system, mixing new construction with renovations to some current buildings—was passed by voters in December 2001. In June 2003, residents voted for propositions relating to this new middle school, adding, according to the school district, another “$8.75 million to the total price tag.”

None of this happened easily. Neighborhood opposition to the proposed middle-school sites quickly emerged. Albany Mayor Jerry Jennings had his own ideas about how to revamp Albany’s public schools, none of which were particularly compatible with what the district had in mind. Private “charter” schools opened that catered to middle-school students, causing critics to question the necessity of a third middle school.

But the district—with, as noted, the electoral blessing of the voters—persevered. And so, on Aug. 25, the Myers Middle School opened with a celebration that drew, according to the district, more than “400 neighbors, students and parents.”

One thing about that blue “metal” atrium, however. It’s not metal. As architect Shawn Hamlin explains, the curved panels over the entranceway—“a conical form, bending in two different directions”—were late owing to a problem with the metal fabrication.

This wouldn’t look so good for a grand opening, so, after some brainstorming, it was decided to deploy a temporary covering on the atrium. A billboard company in Buffalo made the blue covering that will remain in place until the fabrication “glitch” is fixed.

The atrium isn’t the only part of the school that’s incomplete, but, as district communications coordinator Erica Ringewald is quick to point out, Myers always was planned to be a “phased opening.”

Asked about the striking nature of the design, John C. Sobiecki says that everyone wanted the building to have a distinct identity, and not seem like a “cookie-cutter” structure. Sobiecki is with Cannon Design, the international firm hired to come up with the master plan for the facilities project; he notes that one value they worked toward was an “equality in facilities.” In other words, whether a kid goes to Myers or one of Albany’s two other middle schools (Hackett and Philip Livingston, both impressive buildings), they would have similar educational opportunities.

Hamlin adds that they wanted to create quality public architecture, with aesthetically pleasing features like Hackett Middle School’s three-story atrium. They wanted, Hamlin says, to get away from the idea of school construction aiming for the lowest common denominator. They didn’t want to re-create what’s too often a generic suburban experience; they wanted “swooping forms.”

“The forms, the colors, the conical shape” of the atrium are meant to create a focus for the structure. The special design elements, Hamlin hopes, will lead the students to have respect for the building.

On a recent tour of the school, Sobiecki and Hamlin are clearly pleased. And they should be: It’s impressive.

Behind the main entrance is a soaring, two-story central hallway that makes entering the school as grand an experience as boarding a spaceship in a sci-fi film. Off this are the as-yet-unfinished gymnasium and pool, as well as the entrance to the main administration offices.

Going through the building, visible signs of pleasing, intelligent design are everywhere. Color schemes vary from hallway to hallway; classrooms are suffused with natural light; and security features, like the administrative offices on each floor of the academic wing, are low-key and, occasionally, ingenious. (The administration outposts are strategically placed opposite the student bathrooms.) The cafeteria is small and manageable. (It takes three lunch periods to feed the school.) The library is set in a large space, and probably will be very nice when the books arrive; the computer lab is directly across from the library. Even the cement blocks in the stairways are polished and decorated.

Each floor of the academic wing is divided, by those aforementioned administrative offices, into what the designers call “team sections” to make each grade more manageable.

In keeping with the latest thinking on urban schools, the nurses’ room—when it’s finally equipped and finished—will actually be more of a health center; the social-worker and school-psychologist offices are nearby.

Careful planning is perfectly swell, but the proof is in the use. According to principal Kimberly Wilkins, who moved over from the closed-for-replacement School 16 (where she was awarded “principal of the year” last year), “the kids here have done a wonderful job” of adjusting to the new building.

The teachers and administrators came in Aug. 1, says Wilkins, so they could have the experience of “living in the building.” The staff, most of whom were brought in from the two other middle schools (with a few from elementary schools), were able to get a sense of how things would work, even through the construction was very much still in progress.

Is Wilkins happy with the design of the school?

In a word, yes. First, there’s the advantage of a new building: “They don’t have a way they ‘used to do it.’ ”

Also, many of the features emphasized by the planners have had their usefulness proven in practice. The layout of the academic wing has established, as Wilkins explains it, “a sense of order, but not control.” It’s a subtle but useful difference, as the kids probably shouldn’t feel like they’re in jail.

“At this age,” she notes of the students, “they all want parameters.” In separating the school’s sixth, seventh and eighth grades by floor—and putting the eighth grade on the top floor—“a natural progression” has been established from grade to grade.

The “team sections” described by the planners and architect have become “wings,” and the students adapted to them quickly. Wilkins reports that “they named their own wings, and took ownership of [these] names.”

Listening to Wilkins describe how a middle school operates, one quickly realizes that, at the administrative level, it’s all about flow: getting the kids in the building in the morning, moving them from class to class during the day, and getting them out in the afternoon. There are 528 students at Myers, says Wilkins, the majority of whom are bused in. About 30 to 40 kids use CDTA, and the rest walk to school.

Myers, from Wilkins’ testimony, is well-suited to maintaining flow. Each grade has its own entrance, and only eighth graders are privileged to use the main doors. (There’s even a separate entrance/exit for the first-floor music room, so the kids can board buses for band trips without going through the rest of the school.) There is someone to meet the students at each entrance; that way, it’s possible to gauge the general mood, behavior and health of the kids.

Asked about the atrium, Wilkins sees it eventually being used for student clubs (she mentions book clubs in particular) and community meetings.

Two months into the school’s first year, and everyone seems to be still on the same page. So far, it seems, so good. The gymnasium is scheduled to be completed in mid-to-late October; the pool is supposed to be finished by late November. Of course, there’s still much up in the air. The library needs books, and all the other unfinished, unequipped corners of the building need to be finished and equipped.

But nothing drastically wrong with the design of the school has emerged. The kids, we are told, like it. The administrators are happy with its ease of operation. And most everyone in charge of designing and building Myers Middle School is happy. As Shawn Hamlin says, “We’re all pretty proud of this project.”

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