Bruce Nagel + Partners Architects

Clifty Creek Elementary School - Columbus, Indiana


Richard Meier & Partners Architects

  • Bruce Nagel (BN&PA-Managing Partner) - Project Architect (left before completion)
  • Photographer - Ezra Stoller

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This 72,000 square foot public school for kindergarten through grade six is built on sloping twenty-two acre site three miles from downtown Columbus. The three story wing at the site’s lower end stacks classrooms hierarchically under one roof. On each floor two symmetrical suites of four 900 square foot classrooms are partitioned with moveable walls, allowing for the combination of two classrooms. Each couplet shares a glass-walled area for independent, yet supervised work.

The compact classroom wing communicates by a system of ramps with the specialty and service areas contained in a large eroded square in plan. Each quadrant of this square contains a different activity center: library, cafeteria, gymnasium, and art and music rooms. The double height, north-lit library is adjacent to the classroom wing, and its central location is designed to encourage student use. The library also contains a free-form balcony for story-telling and more intimate reading. The ramp system runs directly along the south side of the library, and is flanked by a glass-pane wall affording views into an outdoor courtyard.

Across from the library and separated by the courtyard is the cafeteria, kitchen and services on the south side and a curved stage area at the west end for group presentations. The cafeteria’s canted, glass-paned, north wall allows views back and forth and allows transparent interpenetration of the two spaces, giving the stepped courtyard space in between a compressive energy.

The southeast quadrant contains physical education facilities. The northeast quadrant containing art and music rooms and special classrooms has a semicircular vestibule feeding off the main north entry.

This vestibule serves compositionally as the displaced center of the scheme. With the convex entry to the classroom wing at the west end of the building, it defines the main axis of circulation and primary horizontal datum. The terminus of this axis is indicated on the east elevation by a canopy over a secondary entry, while the horizontal datum is marked on the north and south elevations by change in coloration and material.

This combination of gestures suggests one of the design’s formal strategies: the pulling out of the academic wing from the square plan along the trajectory of the ramp allowing for the possibility of reading the classroom wing as a displaced fourth quadrant and the library/ramp/courtyard space as a tensile intermediary “void”. Such relationships make the architecture both dynamic and unified.

Clifty Creek Elementary sits high atop a sloping 22 acre site of very uneven terrain overlooking US 31 at the south edge of Columbus. The building is constructed using white-glazed tile blocks as a base, grey aggregate block above, and glass. Unusual for a Meier design as he usually prefers one color: white. People are often quite shocked to see this two-toned color scheme as well as an occasional splash of color inside. The interior is nearly all white as Meier felt that the children would provide the color thru their creations as well as their mere presence. A variety of colors were used in the recessed entries to the classrooms and one wall of the interior hallway in the classroom wing. The large curved wall at the end of the building resembling the stern of a ship was painted purple on the inside. One of the reasons Meier was selected for the project was that he had never designed a school and they were hoping for some fresh ideas and not just a previous design pulled from the architects file cabinet. The angular grey and white building bears some resemblance to a large ocean-going vessel and has been described as a “ship-like school on a sea of grass.”

At the sites lower end is a 3-story classroom wing, its levels arranged hierarchically higher by grade. Each floor features 2 sym­metri­cal sui­tes with 4 – 900 square foot classrooms, partitioned with movable walls allowing 2 classrooms to merge. The movable walls are soundproofed as well as providing bulletin board space. Each classroom has specially designed storage spaces including a storage box (“cubbies”) for each student. A glass-walled area shared by each pair of classrooms can be used for private group sessions, study areas or an isolated space for teachers allowing them visual access to the classrooms. Each floor has a separate teacher preparation/meeting area. Classrooms connect to the common and specialty areas by a system of ramps.

The specialty and service areas are contained in a large square, with each quadrant of this square containing a different activity: library, ca­fe­te­ria, gym­na­sium, and art/music/special rooms with each area having its own entry.

The double-height library is adjacent to the classroom wing and features a free-form balcony that cantilevers from one end for story telling or intimate reading. The ramp system runs along the south side of the library flanked by a glass wall with views into the outdoor courtyard. Students pass thru the library area using a series of 3 ramps to get to the various levels and special areas of the building. It was felt that the library is the center of learning in a school so it was placed in the heart of the building. Meier called the library “the core of learning” so he made it the hub of the building with all the ramps passing through hopefully inspiring students to become comfortable with the library and to stop and explore the resources.

Across from the library and the cour­ty­ard is the ca­fe­te­ria: kitchen and ser­vice areas on the south side and a curved stage area at the west end for group pre­sen­ta­ti­ons. The cafeteria’s canted, glass-paned, north wall faces the glass wall of the ramp allowing back and forth views.

The northwest quadrant con­ta­ins the gymnasium and phy­si­cal edu­ca­tion fa­ci­li­ties. The nor­theast qua­drant con­tai­ns art, music rooms and other special classrooms with a se­mi-­cir­cu­lar ves­ti­bule fee­ding off the main north entry. Although built before ADA requirements were in place, the school was designed for easy access for physically challenged students.