A Field of Schools: Rethinking the Relationship Between School and City in San Diego

SummaryThe studio revises the predominant models of school design in the United States by addressing more effectively the relationship between the school and its surrounding context. It focuses on reconsidering the \”California school paradigm\” in the city of San Diego and on the design of new elementary schools for the neighborhood of City Heights.California ParadigmOver the past fifty years, San Diego has faithfully adhered to the California paradigm of school design. Initiated by Richard Neutra and developed by post-WWII architects like John Lyon Reid, Jon Carl Warnecke, and Ernest Kump this model consisted of sprawling single story buildings placed in large open spaces (more than 8 acres) with very little interface with the surrounding context. The classrooms were sparsely arranged in clusters directly linked to the outdoors. The California school paradigm set new standards for schools throughout the United States in the 1950s, and it also helped spread modern architecture in American cities and suburbs. Many of the determining conditions of this model have since changed, but until now, it has persisted relatively unchallenged. Ring School by Richard Neutra Mira Vista School by Carl Warnecke City Heights, San DiegoIn 1998, the San Diego City Schools, a consolidated school district, received about 1.5 billion dollars in bonds for an ambitious schools construction program. About two thirds of this money has been allocated for the restoration and expansion of existing schools and one third for building 14 new elementary schools. Each of these new elementary schools is to house an average of 700 students in about 32 classrooms. The demand has been created by reduced classroom size policy and by population increase. City Heights, a low-income neighborhood with a large ethnic population, has recently attracted a large group of new immigrants. The San Diego City Schools has decided to place 5 of the 14 new schools in this City Heights. Given the high density of this neighborhood (one of the highest in California), it has been difficult to find adequate sites for the schools, and any extensive clearing of houses will result in the displacement of families for whom those new schools are being built. The new schools will have to be located on smaller sites (about 3 acres) and go higher than one floor. While catering to the educational needs of its neighborhood, a new school in an under-serviced part of town like City Heights bears the additional responsibility of providing much needed amenities and public space. The community is demanding to share the open spaces of the schools and some of its functions like the library, meeting rooms and medical services. In the words of the director of the schools construction program, \”The school district has money and the communities have needs.\” As such, the school district of San Diego has been compelled to rethink the role of the school as an educational as well as community facility.Quantity adds a new dimension to the problem. Already City Heights has about five elementary schools and one high school. The addition of five more schools will create an unprecedented institutional density in a rather small area. A new \”field condition\” is emerging whereby the schools can no longer mark themselves by scale, isolation, or by distinct iconography. Their dispersion and codependency with the existing residential and commercial fabric cannot be adequately addressed with the old California paradigm or with the chain link fences that are used nowadays to demarcate the schools against encroaching residences. The \”fields of schools\” in City Heights, San Diego (image prepared by David Hill)This new phenomenon is not particular to City Heights nor is it restricted to schools. I