RobertHunter, Staff Reporter
There is a great disparity between society’s view of education and the environment created for students: the architecture of many schools is simply subpar. Chattahoochee High School is no exception.
In the late 1980s, Fulton County Schools planned to build four new high schools, Tri-Cities, Creekside, Roswell and Chattahoochee, for the growing district. To limit the cost of the new buildings, the same basic layout would be site-adapted for each school, rather than having an architecture firm develop four separate concepts. The proposed design was made of dull, sand and dirt-colored bricks arranged in stripes and featured a large classroom block in which parallel and perpendicular halls traversed the section much like the grid structure of a city. To the north and skewed to the side of this block was a large, circular gym with an incredibly stout dome. These two pieces of the building were lazily connected by a gym lobby. A main hall extended to the side, offering access to the cafeteria and library before stumbling upon the main entrance–formed of two long, gable roofs side-by-side perpendicular to the main hall to create an open canopy structure. Continuing on, two more halls protruded to the north, housing various electives classrooms, and an administrative wing was tacked on to the south. The furthest of those two halls was bisected perpendicularly by another hall that continued in the same direction of the main hall. This last wing included an auditorium and mixed-use classrooms. The only part that extended vertically from the one-story building was a series of health and physical education classrooms as well as an auxiliary gym arranged in a square pattern underneath the cafeteria. Admittedly, even writing this out is confusing, as the various elements lack cohesiveness and seem to be sloppily connected.
This standardization of architecture makes Chattahoochee feel out of place, as there is nothing about the design that connects it with the environment. It’s hard to pinpoint an exact architectural style for the building –probably because there isn’t one. The best descriptors would be either International Style–as the design emphasizes large, flat surfaces–or Brutalism–as the overall exterior, while made of brick and not concrete, creates the same imposing, discomforting mood. However, disregard for the vernacular architecture isn’t uncommon in suburbia. In fact, it’s quite normal, though not in any way acceptable.
Driving down the narrow, slow, two-lane road to the school almost feels as if the architects didn’t want anyone to see the building. Even though reality is that this road was supposed to continue on to connect with Parsons Road, the lack of accessibility is a major downside. Many neighborhood entrances and trees line the sides of the street, but as one approaches the school, the foliage gives way to a meadow of asphalt and geometric shapes that form the west side. Such a relative emphasis on the western auditorium and elective wing gives the impression that the bulk of the school lies there. However, this is not true. As we turn into the student drop-off circle at the entrance, the stout, lengthy, uniform wall to the east implies that perhaps there are, in fact, academic classrooms in the building.
All good pieces of architecture connect, relate and interact with the site; they circulate people between the building, street and surrounding landscape. Yet, here is a building that actively pulls away from the street, one that forces barriers between us and the world–as seen by the vast parking lots and driveways that separate land with seas of asphalt.
Modern schools are often jokingly referred to as “prisons,” and it’s easy to see why. The exterior alone depresses people with its lifeless sand and dirt colored bricks. The sides lack any form of ornamentation, and windows are as rare as good architecture in suburbia. Walking through the entrance is like going underground; it’s nearly impossible to tell what time of day it is while inside. There are two adverse effects to this subterranean atmosphere. Firstly, cell reception is rare, further emphasizing the “institutional” aspect to the building, and secondly, much more energy is consumed controlling the climate inside rather than utilizing natural aspects of the site. The main hall is clad in the same bricks as the exterior, but here, the dismal, fluorescent lights make the mood even more dispiriting. Just as little thought went into the rest of the interior design: locker breaks are sporadically placed, sections of cinder block are placed in the middle of the halls which inhibit circulation and the breaks between various building additions that happened over the years are not smoothed over.
The school’s relationship with the site is minimal, but even the circulation between various spaces inside is questionable. For one, the main hall stops short of the last two halls, forcing traffic through the upper F Hall intersection and creating major congestion. Likewise, class changes before and after lunch are especially hectic because of the massive onslaught of people forcing their way out of the cafeteria and into the classroom block. Moreover, the placement of the CT Hall in the middle of the A Hall drives home the notion that Chattahoochee is a maze-like mess of competing components.
The one simple part of the design is that it’s composed of four basic geometric shapes: circles, squares, rectangles and triangles. The circular, dome-capped gym is an innovative element evoking images of large stadiums or even the Colosseum, albeit without the arches. However, the curved walls clash with the rigid lines of the rest of the building. The gym lobby’s north wall ends up bending so that the northeast corner extends awkwardly beyond the normal foot traffic area. The connection from the gym to the cafeteria is also graceless, as the sliver of lower ceiling between the two forms a hall of gawky, varying width. Lastly, the curved wall in the media center, though it makes the space interesting, is completely unnecessary and looks foreign compared to the hard lines near the entrance.
Though efforts were made to improve the aesthetics (gable skylights in the intersections, colonnade-like sides in the cafeteria and a well designed gallery space as an auditorium lobby), this building is quite strictly utilitarian. There is no life here, only masses and forms. It speaks to a very conservative model of education, one in which the teacher lectures and the only job for students is to listen and scurry around between classes. The few examples of flexible classrooms are results of later renovations. This explains the lack of communal spaces in the building. Very scarcely are there places to sit, catch up with friends or work on homework, and even in the areas that have some sort of seating, it is always very limited.
More recent developments look promising, however. Towering almost two stories over the original building, the new entrance stands as a stark yet welcome contrast. The breadth of the arched roof, monumental nature of the stone pillars and liveliness of the glass curtain walls draped around stand as a testament to what Chattahoochee truly values, even though the rest of the building might not always align with it. Its greatest asset is the addition of more communal space. Though the administration doesn’t quite allow the entrance to function like this, the school desperately needs it to. The uplifting environment it creates and the way it connects with the site is almost analogous to Le Corbusier’s concept of raising buildings on “pilotis.” Again, it’s not about what it is, but rather what it could be.
In addition, the new lecture design and layout in G125 brings an air of freshness, new paint colors throughout the building lighten the atmosphere and the current media center is both innovative and successful. The greatest outlook comes from the art hall, where student work and instillations adorn the walls bringing splashes of color and vibrancy. This truly sets an example for the rest of the building. Perhaps we should not think of Chattahoochee’s architecture as a dismal failure (not that it isn’t) but more as a blank canvas: a chance for opportunity. These institutional, cinder block walls could be so much more.