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Albuquerque Public Schools' "Celestial Hall" - A Magical, Cost Effective Transformation at Matheson Park

MP Main Entry"I've been teaching for over fifteen years in the Albuquerque Public Schools (APS) system," said one instructor. "It never occurred to me I might want to teach at a school just because of its classroom set-up. And then I visited Matheson Park's Celestial Hall."

By necessity, APS building standards require that all design and construction of schools meet precise requirements. The exhaustive list of practical requisites, however, failed to impede the aesthetic imprint in the creation of Matheson Park Elementary School's Celestial Hall. Designed by Rohde May Keller McNamara Architecture firm (RMKM), Celestial Hall earned an American Institute of Architects, Albuquerque Chapter, 2006 Merit Award.

Celestial Hall is the school's first permanent classroom structure that replaced 10 of 34 portable classroom units when it was completed in February 2006. Matheson Park had only portable classrooms since the school was established in the 1960s. "We wanted to create something special, not just a generic building without a soul," said Don May, the lead architect. "It was a matter of developing concepts that would make the structure more conducive to intellectual development." Their development of 10 classrooms, each representing a planet of the solar system, has encouraged the students' down to earth learning environment.

Uniqueness was achieved from the building's basic concept down to every detail. The architects adopted the standard regulation elementary school model of a corridor bounded by classrooms on both sides. At that point the predictability ends. The center corridor is artfully designed as gallery space where students and teachers can display their work on the tall indigo blue glazed masonry walls that reflect the depths of outer space. The gallery is also tapered, narrowing from 16 feet in width from the south to 10 feet at the narrow north end. The spatial geometry responds to the lessening traffic flow from the main entrance on the south end to the exiting north. The visually engaging and intended dimensional illusion also provides visual access to the entire length of the Hall. And classroom doors are inset, hence don't compromise the aesthetics of the gallery or swing into the corridor. "I approached the southern entrance, opened the door, and stepped into space. Space in every sense of the word. Outer space, inner space, roominess and airiness," said an APS visiting teacher.

The unique lighting scheme is key to the Hall's colorful celestial theme and is most dramatic in the corridor. Suspended by solid metal rods from the magnificently high ceiling outside each classroom are spherical accent lights (planets) which range in size from 12" to 48" in diameter. Accent lighting is brilliantly complemented by natural clerestory lighting in the corridor and classrooms, exaggerating perspective and adding inspirational character to the building. "We tried to go over and above standard design and expectation," said May. "It was very important that we incorporate natural lighting which has shown to improve student performance."

MP Gallery DayCelestial Hall includes nine standard classrooms, a computer laboratory, and an outdoor classroom situated between the Venus classroom and Sun computer lab. The outdoor room features a fully fenestrated roll-up door serving as "stage curtain" on the east corridor and concrete "step" seating at the open west end. A roof with an 8' diameter opening or oculus completes the space ideally suited for science experiments, art projects, and stage productions.

Not only did the design team meet their objective to create a truly unparalleled elementary classroom building, they did it on a shoestring budget. The 13,690 gross square foot building was constructed for $131.97 per sq. ft., as compared with the national median for construction of elementary classroom buildings at $152.94 per sq. ft. (data: per 11th Annual Construction Report - 2006 - "School Planning and Management," Paul Abramson). "We aimed to eliminate unnecessary costly finishes and let the building be the finish," said May. Floors are a polished concrete and the baseboards are the galvanized steel stud tracks left exposed. No in-lay ceiling was added in the gallery, but rather the structural, mechanical, plumbing, and electrical systems were exposed, meticulously composed and painted white to compliment the lighting strategies. Lay-in ceilings were used in the classrooms for acoustical reasons however, unconventionally. The ceilings don't span from wall to wall, but rather "float" in the room's center to reveal the buildings construction and allow more diffused light to enter from the clerestory windows.

MP Gallery Night 2APS's need for a durable and easily maintained building was also uniquely addressed by the design team. The restroom walls and floors are washable tile, the exterior and interior "cosmic blue" glazed masonry walls are graffiti proof, and the exterior stucco was treated with an anti-graffiti coating. The design is also sensitive to energy costs. In addition to abundant natural lighting, the architects installed occupancy sensors that control the Hall's minimal artificial lighting, and restroom sinks and toilets operate by motion sensors. "This is a very unusual school from a taxpayer's standpoint," said Larry Zimmerman of B-Z Enterprises, Inc., the building contractor. "It's durable, low maintenance, and energy conscious."

The design feature the architectural team is most proud of is the interior space. "Conceived as non-typically 'introspective' the facility is sensitive to both the campus and the surrounding neighborhood with an outwardly reserved neo-modern aesthetic," said May. "But then one steps inside and it's a wonderful surprise as the 'story' unfolds." The provocative interiors, with their rational organization and unprecedented interactive scheme, are clearly revealed to the cosmically immersed visitor.

The architectural team all agreed that one of the biggest challenges was the budget. "We weren't sure we could get 10 classrooms from the funds allocated," said Daniel Chavez of the design team. "We wanted to create more than a typical classroom building, a sense of place that would enhance learning." And, while remaining within budget, RMKM judiciously added two safety features that were not required. A fire sprinkler system was installed throughout the building, and alternative exiting is provided from one room to the next leading to the exterior. While it was intended as a "Columbine" inspired safety precaution, teachers also enjoy the convenient access to neighboring classrooms. "In the name of improved safety we intend to incorporate both features to our internal standards for this type of building," said May.

Celestial Hall has been described as dazzling, magnificent, novel, magical, and even simply a happy building. All the better to learn by.