A Place for Learning

HMC Architects create a library with a pedagogical mission for San Jose’s Orchard School.

HMC Architects

Orchard School
921 Fox Lane
(408) 944-0388

San Jose, California

It is unusual to visit a modest, 6,000-square-foot library in the Silicon Valley city of San Jose, California, and wish for nothing more than to be back in preschool. It might be the red circle, imprinted in a carpet at one of the side entrances, that’s designed to seat 20 elementary school children at the foot of a fire-engine-red Eames chair. Perhaps it’s the books in the stacks, among them a 1950s guide to letter writing. Or maybe it is the fact that this quiet building, which is on track for LEED Gold certification, bridges the needs of younger and older students, and operates as an example of architectural pedagogy in itself.

David Maglaty and Katia McClain of HMC Architects worked to upgrade the library at Orchard School, one of San Jose’s oldest educational institutions. The campus is currently spread out over a series of low-slung buildings, where, true to California style, outdoor walkways replace hallways and stairwells aren’t necessary. The existing building was a small and low-ceilinged structure, unsuitable for the hundreds of students who were encouraged to use the library, but the architects saw potential in it.

“It was such a prime location,” Maglaty says, explaining that they came up with four goals for the renovated space: more room, better technology, more shelving for books, and improved accessibility. To that end, the original exterior wall was ripped out and replaced with a series of doubled steel columns. These were wrapped with a wood screen that then runs along the length of the ceiling, creating a visual softness that counteracts the large steel beams. Contrary to expectations, a wall of windows lies along the ground plane, while a solid wall takes up the upper half of the structure—minimizing distraction for students and reducing the view of neighboring HVAC systems. The building’s blocky geometry is reiterated inside with subtle divisions: the wood screen operates in tandem with carpet colors to set areas apart, and artwork gradually becomes more sophisticated as it moves from the preschool area to the eighth-grade stacks. Outside, green blocks accent a pattern of Trespa panels, loosely evoking the visual rhythm of a shelf of books.

There’s much to look at, and the architects feel that if just one child wonders what the screen is about or who made that Eames chair, they will have done their pedagogical duty. “The best moment of the entire process,” McClain says, “was on opening day. ‘Is that for us?’ a student asked.” Yes, it is.

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