As one of Architectural Record’s chosen case studies of “Schools of the 21st Century,” the new early-childhood education building, Earl Shapiro Hall, at the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools, is a marvel of sleek design and utility. Founded by John Dewey in 1896, “Lab,” as it is colloquially known, stresses the approach of “learning by doing” and demonstrates this unique style in the architecture of its newest addition.
|Architectural Record – April 2014
A staunch departure from the neo-Gothic architecture of the Lab’s main campus, designer Joe Valerio of Chicago’s own Valerio Dewalt Train Associates, with FGM Architects, took a very modern approach to the building. Several blocks east of the Lab’s other facilities, Valerio was challenged with working outside of the rest of the school’s architectural framework. In reference to the many differently scaled rooms, “Really controlled space is pretty deadening,” said Valerio.
Therefore, classes share small adjoining rooms meant for extracurricular activities, and outdoor “playscapes” are perched atop the roofs. Though it still strikingly resembles the University of Chicago’s traditional Collegiate Gothic style, the expansive truss-supported interior is very welcoming. However, Earl Shapiro Hall’s modern influence is also evident in the cantilevered library that rests over its steel-framed administration wing, completing the structure’s flashy outer features. These include cream-colored brick, reflective energy-efficient glass and perforated aluminum fins arranged in a variation of the Fibonacci sequence.
The school’s “learning labs” have glass walls that provide expansive views of the city and are meant for cooperative lessons between classes. The open feel to the rooms is meant to foster social development, bringing children “outside” and pushing their boundaries. Though Lab School director David Magill admits the building does not have “that hugging space” of older buildings built to smaller scales, 13-foot ceilings and rooms of every shape give children the space they need for their minds to run wild.