Too Cool for School: A Pair of Local Campuses Gets Cutting-Edge Designs

Take a tour inside the innovative institutions where the luckiest students are learning.

By Sarah Chase Shaw August 3, 2016 Published in the Midsummer/Fall 2016 issue of Aspen Sojourner

As the dust settles around the new buildings, crews roll up miles of protective plastic orange fencing, temporary trailers are hauled away, and the noise generated by heavy equipment and construction crews has been silenced. In their place is the jubilant noise of children exploring newfound school yards, their energy palpable as they organize pickup games of soccer and Capture the Flag, chasing one another through field and forest. Music wafts from inside the buildings, art projects dry in the sun, and doors and windows are wide open.

This idyllic scene, or something close to it, could have taken place recently at either of two local institutions. Both the Aspen Community School (ACS) and Aspen Country Day School (ACDS)—which aim to inspire a lifelong love of learning in pre-K through eighth-grade students—recently unveiled new facilities on their existing campuses whose designs reflect their specific educational approaches and student populations. One a public charter school and one a tuition-based private school that shares its facilities with the Aspen Music Festival and School (AMFS), both maintain an intimate learning environment inspired by the Aspen Idea, according to which mind, body, and spirit are nurtured and celebrated through academics, the arts, and the outdoors.

The new buildings on each of the campuses are stunning examples of their respective architects’ ability to design for place and purpose. Representatives for all three institutions are quick to say that the most important part of the process was successfully preserving and integrating their existing character and culture. Where the buildings succeed most, however, is in their ability to be the conduit for ideas and action, for the best school architecture speaks to the curiosity, critical thinking, and cooperation inherent in the learning and growing that happens inside—and outside—four walls.

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Aspen Community School's central area hosts the weekly all-school meetings and serves as a type of village green for students and staff. 

Image: Daniel Bayer


The Aspen Community School’s 25-acre campus sprawls across a high, dry mesa in rural Woody Creek, amidst an ever-changing spectacle of light and energy in the surrounding landscape. The original school building—a funky log structure that oozed rusticity—was designed by local architect Harry Teague in 1973 as his Yale master’s thesis in architecture. 

But, more recently, new buildings were imperative to ACS’s survival, says Skye Skinner, executive director of Compass, the school’s governing body, who oversees the project’s $13.1 million fundraising campaign. “We had a 42-year-old building that was built for a much smaller population and not up to any current building standards,” she notes. “It was a beloved place to work and learn, but we outgrew it.”

Coincidentally, at the time ACS was applying for a Colorado BEST grant (established in 2008 to fund school construction and renovation) to update the existing building, the Colorado Department of Education launched an assessment that concluded that even though the school was in the top percentile of academic performance in the state, it fell into the bottom 1 percent of all public school facilities. Recalls Skinner, “We were on the brink of potentially having to shut down.”

Hoping to salvage the existing buildings, the school looked at ways to reuse what was there. “This was hallowed ground for all of us,” says Skinner. “One of the reasons we waited longer than we probably should have to make a change was that we were afraid of what we might lose. It was not a simple thing to translate what we had into what we wanted.”

Ultimately deeming the original building too far beyond repair, the school embarked on a complete redesign of the campus, engaging parents, students, teachers, alumni, neighbors, and community members in a process that Compass board member Jeffie Butler says was essential to the project’s success. “There was a lot of emotion tied to the physical space of the old campus,” she says, adding that people came out of the woodwork to wax nostalgic and postulate that it would be impossible to recreate the ethos and vibe of the Community School in a new building.

Moreover, it wasn’t enough to have light-filled spaces, big views, and sustainable materials, though all of those are now part of the new school, which opened in September 2015. Throughout the design process, notes ACS principal Jim Gilchrist, certain intangibles were paramount, including the need to create a place where students and staff felt safe and included. “We wanted a place that was going to be a part of how we teach about community,” he explains. “How we treat each other is as important as what we learn. When you look at all of these spaces, they reflect the culmination of thousands of hours and millions of sticky notes about creating that type of environment.”

An important aspect of this environment was recreating the heart of the school from the original structure—an open central area bordered by tiered seating where the weekly all-school meetings were held. That heart is now manifest in a large circular gathering space from which emanate, like spokes on a wheel, the classrooms and administrative facilities. It’s a place where the entire school passes through as well as meets to share, problem-solve, and learn from one another. “It’s like a village green, where there is constant interaction and greeting,” says Gilchrist. “It’s also a place where people are expected to rise to their higher community self.”

“It took a huge amount of dedication that started from within the nucleus of the school and rippled outward to the whole community and beyond.”—Erica Murray, ACS alumna and current student parent

The school exemplifies a shift in 21st-century learning environments. Architect Kari-Elin Mock of the Cuningham Group in Denver, who worked on the project, describes the approach as finding ways to provide flexible learning spaces that allow students and teachers to work together creatively. “ACS’s small size introduced interesting opportunities to build a customized approach that gives them what they need at a very intimate scale,” she says.

The school also wanted buildings that connected both viscerally and physically to the landscape. Says Scott Lindenau, principal of Aspen-based Studio B Architects, which partnered with Cuningham Group on the project, “Many times, school design is a program in a box. In this case, the client recognized that the site warranted a top-notch building.” In an effort to create synergy between the new school, the surrounding landscape, and existing buildings nearby, the Studio B team chose building materials that reflected Woody Creek’s agricultural heritage. For example, they positioned the metal exterior siding in horizontal bands to echo the older log structures elsewhere on campus and create the feeling that the buildings were emerging organically from the landscape. The village feel that was so important in the original compound is supplemented by the new buildings—the school itself and a separate gymnasium—whose orientation toward big views of the Elk Mountains enhances the connection to the surroundings.

Highlighting some of the more unusual interior design elements, Studio B project designer Mike Piche cites the amount of display space requested for student art and the building’s lack of hallways. “The school has a non-precious attitude about its spaces,” he says. “They value materiality and the way in which the building can be brought into play with the group learning and artistic endeavors.”

Still to come in an eventual second phase of the project are a new music and science learning center and a remodel of the administration building. The completion of the first phase indicates that the next one, too, will likely employ an all-hands-on-deck approach. Design committee member Erica Murray, who has a special appreciation of ACS as both an alumna and a current parent, sums up the experience: “It took a huge amount of dedication that started from within the nucleus of the school and rippled outward to the whole community and beyond.”


In conjunction with the Aspen Music Festival and School, ACDS, founded in 1969, inherited its campus from Robert O. Anderson of Atlantic Richfield, a former president of the Aspen Institute who bought the land along Castle Creek from Walter Paepcke. In 1966, Anderson gave the land to the Aspen Music Festival, which promptly hired prominent Aspen architect Fritz Benedict to design a campus. Benedict’s plan included adding several new buildings to the handful of historic structures on-site that dated back to the property’s previous incarnations as a silver mine and a private resort. For more than four decades, the two organizations made do with what they had, sharing facilities in a way that maximized the overlapping uses. Developing a master plan with a deliberate and purposeful design that would address the need to educate both young children and high-caliber musicians had long been a hope.

The two organizations collaborated on the redesign of what’s now known as the Matthew and Carolyn Bucksbaum campus, creating world-class facilities that operate year-round. The project’s first phase, which included 68 new practice rooms, the Schermer Percussion Building, the Martin and Melva Bucksbaum Lower School Building, the Scanlan and Edlis Neeson rehearsal halls, and the cantilevered Harry Teague Pavilion—the last three double as ACDS’s visual arts, drama, and music centers, respectively—was completed in 2013 and received an award from the American Institute of Architects. The second and final phase was finished in May. Debuting this summer are the renovated Gordon Hardy administrative building; Hurst Hall (the largest rehearsal space on campus, which doubles as a gymnasium); the Upper Studio, which also serves as the ACDS science and middle school building; and the dining hall in the new Robert Harth Building.

Satisfying the wide range of needs posed a particular challenge. “Designing the best possible school environment for kids is one thing,” says AMFS president and CEO Alan Fletcher. “Making it work for extremely high-level music study is quite another.” The task for architect Harry Teague couldn’t have been clearer: create a setting for elementary and middle-school learning while providing sophisticated acoustics suitable for the musicians.

Sheltered beneath a canopy of dense green vegetation, ACDS’s long, linear 38-acre campus invites introspection; order and definition are almost mandatory due to the site’s constraints—steep slopes along one side, the fluctuating water levels of Castle Creek along another, and an adjacent county road. The campus wasn’t designed for winter use, and, as representatives of AMFS and ACDS are quick to acknowledge, certainly not intended for educating children or musicians. The buildings were converted into classrooms by ACDS, which uses the campus nine months out of the year, and students had no other options but to walk outside to change classes, no matter the temperature or time of year. And, as picturesque as the campus is, its location could hardly be more challenging. “The hardest part of this entire project was defining the building envelope,” says Carolyn Hines, ACDS’s communication director. “There’s a lot going on here that doesn’t exist on a nice, big, open, flat piece of land.” At one point the two organizations even considered rebuilding elsewhere, but ultimately determined that they had an unusual opportunity to do something extraordinary on the existing property.

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AMFS's new Upper Studio rehearsal hall also serves as ACDS's middle school and science center. 

Image: Daniel Bayer

At a cost of $75 million, split evenly between both schools through substantial fundraising efforts, the new campus effectively doubles the square footage available year-round, from 56,000 to 110,000. And, more importantly, it’s now a sophisticated learning environment for both emerging artists and children ages 3 to 14.

What differentiates these buildings from those at other schools is the acoustical engineering incorporated into the majority of the new structures, a necessary luxury for musicians who come to learn from some of the most celebrated stars of the classical music world. Configuration also proved tricky. “The challenge from our perspective,” says Fletcher, “is that we have 600 students who need to practice every day by themselves. We need space for full orchestra rehearsals, and we need rooms for individual lessons.”

Conversely, ACDS saw an opportunity to create more flexible classroom space that would be connected by interior hallways where student art could be displayed—a concept impossible to implement previously on a campus that was so disparately connected. “When you think of an elementary school, you think of a hallway with classrooms on either side and you think of a cafeteria,” ACDS assistant head of school Andy Davies says. “We’ve never really had either, so it’s an interesting cultural shift for us. We’re a project-based school, and we need a place to gather, particularly in the winter months, where we can share ideas or simply relax and talk.”

In a final nod to unifying the campus’s formerly disparate elements, vehicular access has been restricted to the perimeter; at the center of the pedestrian-only venue is the new cafeteria and a central plaza.

Designing buildings to be compatible with the natural beauty of the surrounding environment was particularly challenging, since much of the overall budget was allocated to acoustics. As he did with some of the buildings in the first phase, Teague’s solution for softening the large, rectilinear silhouettes of Hurst Hall and the Upper Studio was to manipulate the window design and angles so that the buildings tell the story of their surroundings. Horizontal bands of metal, wood-colored fibrous cement, and translucent wall systems intersperse with linear windows to diffuse the boxy forms into a composition that reflects the striated geologic layers visible in the adjacent mountains. Says Teague, “The unique sense of place reflected in these buildings captures the imagination of the children who interact in this environment during the school year, as well as the music students whose frame of reference is more urban and focused.”

Thankful for their new digs, the ACS and ACDS/AMFS communities have embraced their campuses with understandably palpable enthusiasm. Yet they also recognize that beneath the shine of the new buildings is the patina of a rich and deep history, etched permanently in place by the hands, feet, hearts, and souls of those who have been educated in these extraordinary settings.

Or, as ACS sixth grader Finn Johnson puts it, “The new building definitely changed my attitude about where I’m learning. But I still always think about the old school in a good way.” 

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