It’s a detail too perfect, better suited to a novel. Architecture critic goes to kindergarten at modernist school. Years later, she returns to the city of her birth and discovers the school again, surrounded by construction hoardings, on the brink of destruction. Can she save it? Except that was me, and I was too late.
My school, Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, was designed by the firm of Josep Lluís Sert: Spanish architect and planner, former Harvard Graduate School of Design dean, designer of the superb Peabody Terrace apartments just across the street, as well as buildings for Harvard and Boston University. My school came late in his career, late for the concrete walls and rhythmic geometric shadows that were signatures of his architecture, and late, too, for the architecture’s relationship with the surrounding stick-built residential neighborhood known as Riverside. My school was demolished during the spring of 2014. Another King School is now under construction, this one of terminal beige exterior blandness, designed by Perkins Eastman. King School 2.0 trumpets its community connections, zones for students of different ages and natural lighting—just like the one it will replace.
The building was six-years-old when I started kindergarten in 1977. It housed three programs: a Head Start (an early childhood program conceived as part of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty), a traditional elementary school, and a progressive school with mixed ages, open classrooms, and math taught with Cuisenaire rods. The plan, as conceived by Sert, Jackson & Associates, made moving through the school, both through the day and through the years, easy for a five-year-old. Thirty-five years later, I could make a reasonably accurate sketch of it, so memorable were its parts. There was the main street, entered from Putnam Avenue every morning in a cacophonous rush through many doors. Auditorium, gym, and library, accessible to the public after hours, were set along the double-height sky lit hall, which shot through the building to the playground behind. (It’s both a Corbusian ramp brought down to earth and a ringer for the overheated hallway at Sert’s Science Center at Harvard, which opened in 1973.) Classrooms ran along two perpendicular, narrower hallways. Kindergartners turned off first, to a set of classrooms with their own walled outdoor spaces. Second- and third-grade classes were at the back of that first floor; older grades upstairs. The King School checked all the boxes of modernist school orthodoxy: abundant natural light, flexible plan, access to the outdoors, spatial complexity. It was utilitarian in appearance, minimal in detail and interior finishes, but the strong horizontals and uplifting use of light gave it more character than many of the one- and two-story suburban courtyard schools built during this era. I can still recall the texture of the red Tectum walls against which we had to line up, compressed, random ornament.
The school was a city in miniature, I realize now, with the combination of institutions, housing, open space and roads Sert advocated for in town planning and, indeed, into his design for Peabody Terrace. There, modular blocks of apartments pile up into towers and stretch laterally into walls around green space and a virtual town square. A blank side of a parking garage was meant to be used as a public blackboard. The 500-unit project, completed in 1964, had a nursery on the square, but the King School allowed Sert to add a missing public element. “To have a really urban pattern of life,” he told the AIA Journal in 1977, “you have to pull services and activity centers close together.” A broad walkway along the north end of that site sits diagonally across Putnam Avenue from the school entrance. In my memory, they lined up, as we children filled the walkway as we marched toward playgrounds by the Charles River.
I never saw that walkway as a barrier, peering, then as now, into the curious apartments along the side (I didn’t know anyone who lived in a high-rise). I lived in half of a Victorian house one neighborhood over, but my childhood was studded with concrete: the Sert school (1972), the New England Aquarium by Cambridge Seven (1969), and the Central Square Public Library by Monacelli Associates (1973-75). To pass back and forth between the ages of architecture was natural. The King School’s legacy for thirty-five years of kindergarteners is modernism learned from the inside out, that blank walls are made for chalk, concrete walls for murals, glass for art projects stuck up with tape. The simple, powerful spaces were disruptive or strange, but there to guide you safely (and en masse) from classroom to restroom to cafeteria. The building made children comfortable—the grown-ups were another story.
In 2003, Architecture Boston published a story titled, “Why the Public (Still) Hates Peabody Terrace,” exploring three decades of distrust set off by the construction. Despite Sert and his partners’ efforts at inclusion via clear paths to the river, public spaces and shops, and efforts at contextualization, via blocks brought down to triple-decker height, Peabody Terrace was still seen as alien and other, and unfortunately policed that way. While the architects were glad to leap Putnam Avenue and establish a foothold on the other side with the city of Cambridge as client, the King School was seen as a pushy interloper, their architecture on our side of the street. No matter how cleverly Sert, Jackson & Associates fit a new gym, auditorium, and playing fields behind existing houses or echoed the rhythm of the gables with rooftop monitors, the fact of the school, and its clear design relationship to Harvard and Peabody Terrace poisoned the interpretation of a brand-new school.
The outside didn’t help: it had yellow-tinted concrete, few diminutive elements, and a largely blank first floor. What was, in fact, open, didn’t read as such. Scant period sources (even in Sert monographs, this is not a popular project) suggest that the school’s fortress-like outside was a response to the very unsettled politics that gave what had been the Houghton School a new name: Sert began the design in 1968, the year of King’s assassination and worldwide campus protest. But I wonder: how many schools on a main thoroughfare have windows that make it easy for passers-by to see children at work? The new version has windows, yes, but they are barricaded behind layers of planters. How much more engagement will passers-by actually have? The local architects and preservation groups who tried to save the King School admitted a few more exterior windows wouldn’t hurt, but they would be a gesture toward the alienated neighborhood rather than a necessity: the classrooms, arranged around a glassed-in courtyard, got plenty of light.
The King School began to be demolished before it was even built, and never-loved buildings rarely stand a chance. If only someone had turned to four-foot-tall advocates, too small to know concrete is automatically to be described as fortress-like. Kids are offended by guards and barriers, but not by styles of architecture or town-gown politics. The story of the building from the inside out, as a city for children, might—might—have convinced. Stripped for demolition, the building revealed itself as be an ideal platform for reinvention; the bones of Sert’s educational village ready and willing to take on new programs that also needed light, space, and easy access to the outdoors. Ironically, the urban metaphor, and the idea of creating internal streets and neighborhoods within the protected zone of the school, is perhaps more popular in education design now than it was in the 1960s, when many modern schools were designed as U’s and E’s and L’s around boxy, internal outdoor courtyards. The King School’s back playground was more messy and liberal than those midcentury versions, but the protected gardens for the younger children had the same one, two, three structure, while the wide maw opening, from front or back, onto the internal street, offered a more generous point of entry. SOM’s Burr Street Elementary School (2004) in Fairfield, CT combines the two paradigms, with rectilinear bars of classrooms around shared courtyards and facilities, like rows of houses in relation to city institutions. Morphosis’s Diamond Ranch High School (2009) in Pomona, CA similarly inserts an urban “street” into a suburban site, segregating students by age while providing access for all to outdoor space, gym, and cafeteria. As the copy on their website states, “The intention of the whole is to challenge the message sent by society that routinely communicates its disregard for the young by educating them in cheap institutional boxes surrounded by impenetrable chain link fencing.” Sert’s intentions, with his crosscut street, his community facilities accessible after hours, his small play spaces for the small children, big play spaces for all, were the same, and were clearly legible (to those who can interpret) in the plans. But if this was said during the design process, or even afterward, it seems not to have been heard. The King School legacy instead becomes part of a chain linking too many other postwar buildings felled by longstanding prejudice, green-washed replacements, and the promise of the new. It’s a shame the King School never really had a moment as shiny and new. A lifetime of skirting the edges of the King School made it easy to wish away, no matter how carefully it was designed to let the community in.