Q+A: The Architect Behind the Sandy Hook Redesign

Julia McFadden, one of the lead architects of the Sandy Hook School redesign, discusses the project’s many challenges.

Rendering of Sandy Hook School, designed by Svigals+Partners

Courtesy Svigals+Partners

Sandy Hook School, where twenty children and six adults were fatally shot in 2012, will reopen in August of this year. New-Haven based firm Svigals+Partners has carefully led the Connecticut community in a participatory design process, which has aimed to create a space that harbors both security and pride. Metropolis spoke with Julia McFadden, associate principal at Svigals+Partners, via email to discuss how the architect faced the project’s multiple challenges.

Vanessa Quirk: What was the hardest part of the Sandy Hook process for you as an individual? As an architect?

Julia McFadden: My normal sense of empathy hit a roadblock; I truly couldn’t fathom what it felt like to lose your child in this way. We needed to listen carefully. Concerns that were shared with us early on included: many didn’t want the school re-built at this same site, while others wanted the community to feel whole again with a school on this site; some didn’t see the new school opening as a “celebration” for the community; there was a desire to protect and respect the site.

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VQ: How was community input incorporated into the design? Why is this input important?

JF: Svigals+Partners advocated for a very inclusive and broad community engagement process; we gathered a group of 50 people to collaborate with us over the course of 7 workshops. The workshops provided a forum for gathering input, but more importantly, for community members to hear each other.  We learned about the community, their histories, their hopes, their sense of identity, but they also evolved in the process. Through listening to each other, the process itself enhances community.  We have always found this type of input to be valuable because we aren’t designing a generic architecture; we strive for a specific poetic response to the community that is truly “owned” by them.

VQ: Do you believe it is architects/designers’ responsibility to incorporate security into school design? Should security ever come at the expense of good design?

JF: Certainly it is our responsibility to address security in school design; however, I think it is also our responsibility to do so as an integrated design response. Security shouldn’t ever come at the expense of “good design,” but “good design” should never be defined to exclude security concerns. “Good” design is all about a process that balances competing needs in creative ways.

VQ: How did you balance the need to make the building a functioning school, one that looks forward, while also allowing for the need to memorialize the tragedy that took place?

JF: In the strictest sense, we didn’t allow for memorializing the tragedy. The Town had decided that a “memorial” would not be located on the school site for obvious reasons:  they didn’t want to attract notoriety and traffic to the school, which would be disruptive to the school functioning and psychologically distracting to the teachers and students, and they didn’t want any macabre reminders of the tragedy for the young students. Yet, this has left a void of sorts in terms of respecting and acknowledging the lives of those lost.  So, we took a poetic approach: we carefully arranged the site to “respect” the area where the old school sat and gave the new school an expression of welcoming, hopefulness, connection to nature, and re-birth.  Nothing is literal in reference to the tragedy, but the school and the integrated artwork provides a “story” of Sandy Hook.

VQ: Do you believe architects/designers can create schools that are nurturing/healing, with the potential to help mitigate the possibility of violence in the future?

JF: Absolutely. It’s why I’m an architect, because I believe in the reciprocal exchange between us and our environments: we can design and shape our places, and they in turn shape us. Places can have wide-ranging impacts on us, from a simple mood shift to perhaps encouraging or discouraging our deeper emotional responses, particularly speaking to us about our place in the world. Yet, the cause and effect is complicated, and the physical environment is one of many aspects for any issue, and the roots of violence are complex. Certainly a beautiful building alone cannot make up for a lack of efforts and policies that address violence in society, from mental illness, gun control, to incarceration practices. However, we can and should be looking to make school environments nurturing, and connected to nature, the community, and the world.  We also should not make schools that are sterile, dark, or institutional in feeling, nor disconnected from nature. We know that is not conducive to learning and a sense of safety and belonging.

VQ: Your educational background is quite varied—from an undergraduate degree in Theatre Arts, to a Masters in Architecture, to post-graduate work at the Institute for Public Art + Design, to the Wind & Water School of Feng Shui. How have these different educational experiences affected your design process? How did they help inform your approach to the Sandy Hook School?

JF: In theatre, set design is not about realism, as that is what film can do and do better, but on a stage the approach is about understanding the essential characteristics of what makes a place identifiable and yet rich in nuance.  So you are furnishing the bare bones to provide only the essential elements of the place.  It got me thinking poetically about place, as well as the hierarchy of important elements.

This quote from Orson Welles articulates this aspect of restraint, as well as revealing how theatre relies on the active imagination of the audience:

I want to give the audience a hint of a scene. No more than that. Give them too much and they won’t contribute anything themselves. Give them just a suggestion and you get them working with you. That’s what gives the theater meaning: when it becomes a social act.  ~Orson Welles

Certainly my interest in creating place architecturally is influenced by this search for the essential elements of place, as well as the “art” of it.  And there is contradiction.  Stripping a place down to only essential elements might be a description of what the modernists were trying to do, and I do resonate with much of the modern movement in architecture.  On the other hand, the modernists advocated for “reality”, for the true expression of materials, whereas my theatre background makes me more comfortable with artifice and illusion. I’m okay with many material substitutions and “deceptions,” as long as the creative evocation hits the right note.  What does this make you feel?

Julia McFadden, lead architect on the Sandy Hook School redesign project.

Courtesy Svigals+Partners

My architecture training did have us consider an entire environment, however it was of course weighted to the design of the buildings, of structures. Landscape was relegated to the background—for collaborations with landscape architects. However, I found myself wanting more, wanting more of a poetic holistic sense of place. So, the Institute for Public Art + Design was a combination really of Theatre and Place-making.  It exposed me to again think about “places” as theatrical constructs. Public art isn’t just putting a sculpture in a plaza, it is about the social act: what thinking can you evoke, and even what conversations can you inspire, by placing art in very considered ways into specific landscapes? It also expanded my vocabulary of elements to use: graffiti is art; transient items created for a specific place for a limited time, such as an Andy Goldsworthy piece, is art; even performance art can transform and define a place.  Essentially, it helped me understand the intersection of rituals, art, materials, and place.

In approaching the design of Sandy Hook School, hopefully I brought all of myself and this background to bear on it.  But designing with Svigals is inherently a social act: we actively engage as many people as we can, so it is a dynamic collaboration.  We encouraged the community to tell us their “stories,” to truly understand who they are, who they were before the tragedy, and who they want to be in the wake of it.  Our job with the architecture was to translate those stories into a rich sense of place, that supports both their history and future aspirations. It was important to pay attention to our design moves and ask ourselves how does this make you “feel” and what “conversations” will be had in response to this school.

VQ: In previous interviews, you’ve mentioned the importance of integrating nature into the school design. In what other ways did you attempt to create a healing space for the children?

JF: We focused on the elements that make schools vibrant learning places –“healing” in the sense of comfort, familiarity, inspiration, and a feeling of safety.  Nature is a big aspect of that. Some other general concerns we incorporate in all our school designs:

  • Welcoming entry – we pay particular attention to the design of the entries of a school. Glass is important to create a feeling of a welcoming entry. Literal “transparency” to indicate an open and transparent educational environment. We did not want to lose that in the concern for security – and in fact, the ability to see people approaching the school is a recognized, sound security practice.
  • Daylight – ensuring that all spaces have a good amount of natural daylight means windows!
  • Views to the exterior – thoughtfully thinking of where to locate and orient the building to take advantage of natural or created views to the landscape – this is a part of that connection to nature.
  • Logical circulation — Our policy is never to have a “dead end” corridor, one that is dark and ends with a blank wall. It’s important to provide an experience of moving through a school that isn’t twisty and confusing, but instead helps children feel oriented to the exterior and aware of “where” they are.  The “ends” of corridors are therefore important, as well as intersections. We have skylights above intersections of corridors on the 2nd floor as well as internal windows to view down into spaces on the 1st floor, giving rise to an understanding of 3-dimensional space.
  • A sense of arrival – we try to create an “event” out of the entries to classrooms.  So, we recess the doorways and “announce” the entry with 1) a welcome “mat,” which is a block of colorful floor tile in front of the door, and 2) a colorful “canopy” with a decorative light fixture, evoking a front porch. Children come “home” to their classroom and feel invited and welcomed.

Specifically for Sandy Hook School, we made these additional design considerations:

  • Wood and stone façade – the wavy shape of the front wall of the school appeals to the abstracted memory of the town’s identity as it sits in the undulating hills of the area. The warm wood is a beautiful welcoming material, and the stone base evokes the typical New England stone foundations in the area. Carved wood panels adorn the façade, which were abstracted from the students’ artwork during a KidsBuild workshop. They evoke a sense of ownership (like carving your initials in a tree trunk) as well as participation in the making of the school.
  • Rain garden – a bioswale extends along the entire front of the school, creating a metaphorical “stream.” The three entries are metaphorical “foot bridges” over the stream. This evokes the real experience of living in Newtown—a familiar and comforting experience to all that live here—where numerous crossings of streams and rivers is a daily experience.
  • Creating Community – the hub of the school is the central lobby that you enter when you come through the main doors. This two-story vaulted space, which faces south, is dynamic and filled with light.  A two-story expanse of glass, dotted with colorful flecks, faces the exterior courtyard, beckoning children to come outside and play. A bridge above creates a dynamic connection to the 2nd floor, and children can see each other as they come and go from their classrooms to other parts of the school.  A carpet inlay makes for a cozy spot to hold class. The school’s pet turtle, Shelly, has a new larger permanent aquarium.
  • Artwork enhances the space and connects it to the school’s themes:
  • Metaphorical “tree” trunks are made of steel that silhouette against the two-story glass.
  • A mobile of “leaves” (by artist Tim Prentice) suspended above evokes the effect of walking into the forest (and going upstairs to visit the treehouses – see below).
  • Fiberglass panels, conceived and sculpted by Barry Svigals, depict birds taking flight from/through the lobby and out to the courtyard, connecting the children to the natural habitat and the school’s lore of nesting ducks.
  • Treehouses – at the ends of the 2nd floor corridors we made small spaces that are “unprogrammed” and could be used by teachers or parents for smaller group activities.  From the exterior they look like treehouses and from the inside they feel “separated” and special due to the floor-to-ceiling glass windows that flank the treehouses.  Windows are low for children’s views.  A treehouse is where children can be safe and make the rules!
  • Courtyards – the school naturally creates 3 protected courtyards, between the 4 wings of the school’s shape.  These were consciously created to extend the learning space into nature.

VQ: When will the school be open? What are your hopes for the new school?

JF: The building will be completed by June 1, with landscaping continuing into the summer. The school will open for the 2016-2017 school year in late August.

My hopes are that the school will resonate with the town at a deep nurturing level; that it will quickly become beloved and evoke a sense of pride and hope; that the Sandy Hook School will resume its status as the best school in the district, where children exceed expectations and excel in reading, writing, and the arts; that it will foster a sense of belief in humanity, despite tragedy; that teachers will be thrilled to work here and feel safe and secure; that children will delight in their time at this school and create strong lasting positive memories.

Julia McFadden, AIA, is an Associate Principal with Svigals+Partners, a New Haven-based architecture, art and advisory firm. Julia has led some of the firm’s largest projects,  including the new Sandy Hook School, a Pre-K- 4 facility in Newtown, Connecticut, as well as the Engineering & Science University Magnet School, for grades 6-12, in West Haven, Connecticut. She is also a Feng Shui practitioner, certified by the Wind & Water School of Feng Shui.  

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