A new school blends 21st-century flexibility and daylighting with midcentury-modern refinement

By Amy Goetzman

Smart schools. 21st-century learning environments. Modern learning landscapes. Futuristic terms like these can make it sound like educational practices in 2019 are all-new. What Stillwater Area Public Schools wanted for its new Brookview Elementary was a warm and welcoming school with the flexibility to support a range of teaching philosophies and styles, from the innovations of the recent past to those that are still emerging.

“The building draws upon the latest trends; it has flexibility, technology—all the things you might expect in a new school,” says BWBR architect Stephen Berg, AIA.“But the key goals were to build upon the true community feel that the district has cultivated in its other facilities, and to fit the building into the neighborhood. This school is meeting the needs of an area of Stillwater and Woodbury that has seen significant growth. The district needed to create a school that would be an excellent neighbor in terms of design and traffic.”

BWBR has a long-standing relationship with the district and a good understanding of its culture and needs. What’s more, several of the St. Paul firm’s employees send their children to Stillwater schools, including this new facility. The architects toured other buildings in the district, talked with teachers, and reached out to the community with a series of workshops at which they shared plans for the school and gained insight into neighborhood concerns. “The site was an elevated, open field, so the school was going to be a big change for neighbors used to seeing a nice pastoral setting out their windows,” says Berg. “We worked hard to minimize the massing of the building and the overall impact of traffic circulating around it.”

Circulation patterns inside the school are calmed by dividing the student population into three separate learning communities, or pods: kindergarten and first grade, second and third grades, and fourth and fifth grades. That’s a very 21st-century strategy, because it provides maximum flexibility. Classrooms with over-scaled sliding door panels enable teachers to combine or rearrange the rooms, all of which feed into a central hub that can also be used as a learning space. “The school can shuffle classrooms as needed across the pod,” says BWBR designer Laura Flynn. “It allows them to adapt to changes in enrollment or teaching styles.”

This configurability makes the school ready for the unknown future, but other trends, such as eliminating the media center in favor of digital materials, don’t come into play at Brookview. In fact, there’s a bright, beautiful library loaded with books. “It’s a fairly traditional library,” says Flynn, “except that it’s open to the corridors, inviting students to flow in. It too becomes flexible space, like the common areas outside the classrooms.

“The communal nature of all these corridors made capturing views and daylight key,” she continues. “In many schools, the hallways are lined with classrooms on both sides, with maybe a small window looking out at one end. This school is so different from that. You never feel you are in a tight, enclosed area. There is always light; there are always views.”

There is also color—vibrant, playful color. Each learning community has its own color identity, and while the palette borders on bold for an elementary school, a closer look reveals sophistication and restraint in the way the designers wove in complementary tones and fabrics to create depth and interest.

Outside, the low-slung building is a show of refined simplicity, with each elevation crisply composed of large windows and sections of deep-red brick and terra-cotta-colored brick. A wide porch along the front of the building can be used as an amphitheater or a staging area for group activities, including school pictures. It’s a defining design feature that reinforces the school’s welcoming community atmosphere.

“There are some echoes of traditional midcentury-modern school design in this project,” says Berg. “And yet we weren’t trying to fit into any sort of mold or be too trendy. We were aiming for a timeless quality.”

“What I love about this elementary school is that it’s playful but not childlike. There’s something very appropriately scaled and restrained about it, and yet it feels like a place where children will grow. The designers took responsibility to meet the criteria of what a place of learning for children needs to be without succumbing to trendy things.”
—Allison Grace Williams, FAIA

“Everything here is done with great skill and with a laudable resistance to over-elaboration or exaggeration. The architects of this project said: ‘We can make a series of boxes, proportion and clad them well, and make great spaces inside them that people can move through and linger in, and that offer a great framework in which kids can learn.’ That’s quite powerful.”
—Marlon Blackwell, FAIA

Location: Woodbury, Minnesota
Client: Stillwater Area Public Schools
Architect: BWBR
Principal-in-charge: Peter G. Smith, FAIA
Project lead designer: Stephen Berg, AIA
Landscape architect: Damon Farber
Construction-manager agent: Kraus-Anderson
Size: 74,000 square feet
Cost: $17.1 million
Completion: August 2017
Photographer: Brandon Stengel, Assoc. AIA