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August 30, 2015

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In new Sandy Hook school, Newtown plays design role

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Andrew Sullivan / The New York Times

Architect Barry Svigals stands in his loft, where he paints, draws and sculpts, in New Haven, Conn., Feb. 11, 2014. Svigals is founder of the firm Svigals + Partners, which designed the new Sandy Hook Elementary that will replace the building, now torn down, where Adam Lanza shot and killed 20 children and six adults.

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An undated handout photo of a concept plan that is neither finished or final for Sandy Hook elementary school in Newtown, Conn. Svigals + Partners is designing the new Sandy Hook school that will replace the building, now torn down, where Adam Lanza shot and killed 20 children and six adults.

NEWTOWN, Conn. — The school will be in the woods, away from the parking lot. It will feature a long, curving corridor that the architect likens to arms embracing students as they enter. All classrooms will have natural light and will share treehouse-like spaces where students can work in groups or just reflect.

Any architect must balance aesthetics, function and, of course, cost. But the team designing the new Sandy Hook elementary school in Newtown, where Adam Lanza shot and killed 20 children and six adults in the old school, since torn down, has had to contend with the extra burden of the horrific crime that unfolded Dec. 14, 2012. The job was fraught with pain and open to second-guessing.

The architects the town chose, Svigals + Partners, a 30-person firm based in New Haven, had only a half-dozen elementary schools in its portfolio, far fewer than bigger competitors for the commission. It was known as well for designing laboratories for Yale and high-end houses for celebrities, including musician Keith Richards and cartoonist Garry Trudeau.

Designing the new school was a lengthy process mixing still-raw emotion and the mundane business of contracts and bids. In the end, the architects winnowed the options to a final plan by gently coaxing feedback from the people of the town.

“I feel like it’s going to take Sandy Hook and put a sweet shine on it,” said Gene Rosen, a neighbor who on the day of the shooting sheltered children fleeing from the school.

The state of Connecticut set aside $50 million in bonds to cover all of the project’s estimated cost — four times the percentage it usually covers for similarly affluent districts. About 17 architectural firms vied for the assignment when the call went out in May. Seven were invited to submit detailed proposals for the school. Svigals + Partners won with a proposal that was more drawing board than design.

With Julia McFadden, a Minnesotan with a background in theater and feng shui, as project manager, the real work began. The firm assembled a 50-person advisory committee and toured other local schools. It held workshops to hear townspeople’s ideas and concerns and met separately with victims’ families.

The town, in its grief, appreciated Svigals’ approach. Those involved in the process “have been good at guiding us and are having a calming effect,” said Laura Roche, vice chairwoman of Newtown’s Board of Education.

The board expects the new school to be ready by the fall of 2016 for the roughly 500 elementary school students typically assigned to Sandy Hook, one of four elementary schools in Newtown. In the interim, 400 students are being bused to the nearby town of Monroe, while preschoolers who would have been at Sandy Hook are temporarily at Newtown High School.

The town had considered other sites for the new school but concluded that staying put made the most sense.

Security measures were a prime topic of discussion. E. Patricia Llodra, the town’s first selectman, has affirmed the town’s eventual commitment “to provide armed security” to all public schools in its borders, and the architects included safety in their thinking. They anchored the school farther back in the woods, to create more of a buffer between cars and classrooms; floor plans allow wings to be sealed off to confine events to one area; and the ground at the facade slopes downward so that the children will be able to look out the windows without fear that trespassers can peer in.

Barry Svigals, the 65-year-old founder of the firm, calls what he does “creative engagement.” His buildings are intended to spring from their surroundings and incorporate elements that reflect community suggestions.

“Each of these buildings could not be anyplace else,” he said. “They are hard-wired to the particular place, the particular institution.”

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Architect Barry Svigals, left, greets Gene Rosen at a meeting to introduce proposed school designs, in Newtown Conn., Feb. 11, 2014. Svigals is founder of the firm Svigals + Partners, which designed the new Sandy Hook Elementary that will replace the building, now torn down, where Adam Lanza shot and killed 20 children and six adults.

And so New Haven children made bricks used in their Svigals-designed school. In Bridgeport, students recommended cellphones as one of the fossil-like objects to be embedded in their school walls, part of the message that “who we are is what we leave behind,” Svigals said.

At the University of Connecticut, where the firm’s work has included participation in a campus master plan, Svigals asked students and faculty members to create motivational phrases out of the letters in the school’s name. They came back with “reinvent society,” “resist routine,” “confront confusion,” “incite curiosity” and, simply, “try it.” In his studio in a former Erector Set factory, he designed tiles for each of the letters in the name and turned the phrases into fiberglass murals that connect the buildings.

Svigals’ firm, which opened in 1983, has 1,500 assignments under its belt, including projects for schools and universities — 200 from Yale alone — sensitive assignments for clients like the FBI and homes with whimsical flourishes for Trudeau, the creator of Doonesbury (a banister ends in a sculpture of his character Zonker, reclining) and Richards, the guitarist (a bronze door knocker with its tongue sticking out, inspired by one at the Château de Dangu in Normandy, where the Rolling Stones camped out during their Urban Jungle tour). Svigals’ ties to Yale run deep: He was a political science major in its class of 1971 — Trudeau was one of his roommates — and he earned a graduate degree in architecture there five years later. He also taught architecture at the university.

He apprenticed for four years with Herbert S. Newman, a New Haven architect, and embarked for Paris in 1980 to study sculpture at École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts. Europe, Svigals recalled, was teeming with buildings that combined art and architecture, though rarely by the same person.

On Feb. 11, Svigals offered three prototypes to Newtown’s Board of Education and its Public Building and Site Commission in the Reed Intermediate School library.

The architect addressed the officials, many settled in rocking chairs, and drew laughs when he jokingly said: “Everyone in this room has been involved. So it’s your own fault if you don’t like it.”

All three designs advised moving the site of the school into the woods, to be closer to Treadwill Park. And none of the three imagined anything but plantings in areas where people were shot.

The first plan, nicknamed Main Street, featured the curving corridor along the front. Demonstrating with a gesture, Svigals compared it to a pair of outstretched arms to “reach out and embrace the children as they come in.”

Classrooms would be arranged around hallways that extend like fingers off the rear of the corridor. Each wing ended in an elevated, treehouse-like room, and all classrooms had natural light and views of the park. McFadden noted that it would be the most cost-efficient to build.

The second plan radiated out from two enclosed courtyards, reviving an architectural element of the old school that occupants cherished.

The third plan was a hybrid, featuring courtyards and natural light, with smaller courtyards that McFadden said were “more like pocket gardens.”

One after another, town officials embraced the Main Street plan.

“It just fits right in,” Joseph R. Borst, a building commission member, declared.

“I’m really bowled over,” Anthony M. D’Angelo, another commission member, said, listing what he liked: “Its simplicity. That you come in, and the outside is there. I just love that.”

If the current schedule holds, in 2 1/2 years children could be in, and if all goes well, a few months earlier moving-up ceremonies for the departing fourth-graders might be held in the new building.

Whenever children do return, there will be one link to the past that has been carefully preserved: the Sandy Hook Elementary School flagpole.

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