Saturday, August 16, 2014

Northgate Park

I was in North Portland recently taking photos of Portsmouth Cut bridges, and I needed a couple of places to park. For the Fessenden St. and Columbia Boulevard bridges, I figured I'd park at nearby Northgate Park and walk from there. To be honest I'd never actually heard of the place before. It's your basic neighborhood park with ball fields and play equipment, and an elementary school next door. As I've said umpteen times now, parks like this typically aren't that interesting, blogwise, and I don't actively seek them out. If I happen to be at one anyway, though, I'll take a couple of photos and see what I can dredge up about the place on the interwebs. (Incidentally, for the bridges at Willamette Boulevard & Lombard St., I parked at the adjacent Fred Meyer store, and bought a tomato plant by way of thanks for letting me use their parking lot.)

Northgate Park's main point of interest is the school building next door, which you can see in the background in a couple of the photos. This is the former Clarendon Elementary School, which was built in 1970, and closed in 2007 in one of the Portland school district's endless reorganization efforts. I didn't pay much attention to the school until I started putting this post together and realized how unusual it looks from above. The school is the weird cluster of hexagons on the right side of the above map. The unusual design isn't just an architectural whim; it embodies circa-1970 cutting-edge thinking about how schools should work, namely the "open-plan classroom" concept.

A recent historic building assessment done for the school district determined it's a significant building, but isn't yet eligible for the National Register of Historic Places as it's not 50 years old quite yet. (As a fellow product of the year 1970, I'd just like to point out that it's going to be an exceedingly long time before anything from that year turns 50.) The report describes the school building at length; here are a couple of excerpts that explain why it is the way it is:

The hexagonal form facilitated the design of the school following an “open classroom” concept without corridors or interior walls to separate classrooms from one another. Beyond the entry lobby, the main gathering spaces are contained within the three central pods. The most prominent of these spaces is the central pod which features a large concrete column with several arches that branch out to meet individual glulaminated ridge beams which in turn support the hexagonal pitched roof. A platform with a safety railing, accessed via a stair, encircles the concrete column. Several steps descend from the platform to the base of the concrete column. Globe lights, suspended from the ceiling, supplement the illumination provided by the glazing in the cupola Between the northernmost common area pod is a glass enclosed courtyard that features some original concrete playground forms as well vegetation. Immediately to the north of this courtyard is a large multi-purpose area/gymnasium that features exposed concrete masonry unit walls.
Unlike the earlier “finger plan” schools constructed during the post-war period in Portland (See Ogata 2008), the Clarendon Elementary School was based upon the hexagon as the organizational unit for each classroom and common space in the building. Each hexagon or “pod” could house up to 90 students in an open classroom environment – an experimental shift in educational focus. When opened, Clarendon “rejected grades in favor of performance groupings” (PPS Staff Report 1971: 2). The advantage of this educational approach was to group students together regardless of age into groups with similar levels of understanding. Daily evaluations were made to determine whether students should shift groups depending upon their achievement (PPS Staff Report 1971: 2).

The design of the school was tailored to this method of teaching. The lack of walls, doors, and corridors, wide open classroom space, and use of bright colors such as oranges and yellows, smaller scale cabinets and sinks, as well as formed concrete columns that resembled tree trunks created unique interior experiences. The independence of each pod was further enhanced by having direct access to the exterior and neighboring Northgate Park thus minimizing potential distractions during recesses and increasing fire safety.

I can see why the district picked this school to close, instead of one of a more traditional design. The philosophy behind it is essentially incompatible with contemporary thinking on education, which focuses on rote memorization and endless high-stakes standardized tests to the exclusion of all else. I don't know whether 70s-style unstructured free-form learning was necessarily "better", but it was probably less soul-crushing. My own elementary school, in Portland's western suburbs, was built in a sort of pod design (albeit without the hexagons and cool tree trunk columns), but it had mostly reverted to a more traditional teaching style, and the floor-to-ceiling movable classroom dividers almost always stayed closed. Anyway, here are a couple of pro articles and con articles about this style of education, if you want to read more about it.

I was about to suggest the old school would make a great McMenamins, or maybe fun offices for a tech startup, but the Portland school district already has plans for the building. As of March 2014, the plan is to reopen the school as a "regional early learner center", as part of the district's expanding pre-kindergarten program.

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