Blair Kamin has a nice piece on Gary Comer College Prep on Chicago’s rough and tumble south side. The school was designed by Chicago architect John Ronan in a style that deliberately ignores its context, which includes a tire repair shop next door. The building attempts to replace one depressingly familiar narrative with an older, inspirational one. The school is located next to the scene in which a 17-year-old girl was shot while talking on her cellphone by a man quarreling with another on a CTA bus. The school is also near the birthplace of Gary Comer, the Lands’ End founder. Comer left $20 million in his will for the construction of the school.
Comer Prep is also an interesting case study in the power of architecture to shape human behavior. For instance, the school is split into two buildings separated by a courtyard exposed to the elements. Students are forced to trudge across the courtyard in all kinds of weather, just as they would on a college campus. The principal, a Northwestern University graduate, wanted to share with his students his fond memories of walking across NU’s wind-whipped campus in February. There’s a lecture hall structured to resemble a college lecture hall. To represent the metaphor of learning as enlightenment, and to remind students that they’re accountable for their actions, Ronan lit the hallways with skylights and demarcated them from the classrooms with glass, distractions and fingerprints be damned. (The principal claims the students obey orders not to touch the glass.) To convey a sense of safety, the building is wrapped in perforated steel.
For all its high-concept design touches, Ronan’s school building is explicitly pedagogical in a rather old-fashioned way. Comer Prep also raises questions about the extent to which all buildings aspire to improve and uplift the people who inhabit them, however fleetingly. Ronan demands that several hundred high school students keep their hands off the glass in order to teach them a lesson in accountability. It’s worth considering, I think, how often we’re furtively asked to keep our fingerprints off the glass because clean glass makes us better people.