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Monday, March 14, 2005

Perspectives Charter School

Perspectives Charter School in Chicago, Illinois by Perkins + Will

Started in 1993 by Kim Day and Diana Shulla-Cose, two Chicago Public School (CPS) teachers, Perspectives Charter School is a public school with open admission that operates on a five year contract with CPS, last renewed in 2002. Perspectives takes the small-school format as its inspiration, limiting classes to 24 students in an effort to create a school with "a family-like atmosphere that students, parents, and faculty could call their own...where students felt safe...[and] where students were challenged."

Perspectives' new school is located on Chicago's near south side, on a triangular site at State and Archer, just north of Bertrand Goldberg's Raymond Hilliard Homes. The long, tapered shape of the site (like the tip of a pencil) is a potential liability but also an asset to the project. Ralph Johnson of Perkins + Will exploited the triangular shape by letting the building reach almost to its eastern tip, stopping the enclosed building short but extending the roof to the corner. Connected to this portion of the roof is a metal mesh trellis, the future home to ivy planted at its base.

The entrance is located on the western end of the building, adjacent to the parking lot and in the direction of the nearby "L" station. Outside of the eastern tip, the entry is the only area where the architect goes beyond the simple (and most likely inexpensive) exterior of horizontal ribbon windows set in corrugated metal siding, sitting on a roughly three foot brick base. The roof line from the northwest corner slopes up to cover some rooftop mechanical equipment where a portion of the corrugated siding is set perpendicular to the typical horizontal emphasis, leading the eye down as the wall wraps into the canopy. Obviously the architect is using the cheap materials to his advantage, here in a subtle manner. A separation in the west wall is filled partly with full-height glazing, similar to the eastern tip; this visual consistency connects the two ends, while also illustrating the linear circulation running through the building from the entrance to the special classroom at the far east.

The South Loop area where the school sits is undergoing a transformation as condominium developments and their effects expand south towards Cermak Avenue and McCormick Place, now in the throws of a massive expansion set to open in 2008. Edge condition could easily describe the area's past, with barriers to the south (Stevenson Expressway), east (Lake Shore Drive and McCormick Place), and west (Red Line and Chinatown) for many years containing the housing projects and their concomitant environs. But the presence of McCormick Place - and its importance in the city's international image - meant change was inevitable. How does Perspectives Charter School fit into the area's evolution? Physically it does it very well, resisting the mundane brick-and-stone neo-traditionalism of nearby condos in favor of a gritty neo-industrial aesthetic that in some ways mirrors the area's tough times.






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