The word “campus” comes from the Latin word for “field.” Classical literature enjoined students to seek truth in “the groves of Academe.”
In today’s cities, however, green space is in short supply, and what little there is often comes at a premium.
Architects have had to come up with ever more creative design solutions that address this scarcity while enhancing and enlivening the school experience.
Eduardo Calma’s design for the British School Manila Visual and Performing Arts Building is a case in point.
“A campus today should respond to urban limitations and conditions,” says the architect.
A new addition to the international school’s Bonifacio Global City campus in Taguig, the Visual and Performing Arts Building is intended to serve as a hub for students’ creativity, housing the school’s facilities for music, dance, theater and the visual arts.
Established in 1976, British School Manila is the oldest international school in the country, offering the British equivalent of primary and secondary levels. It is highly regarded for its International Baccalaureate program.
It’s also posh by Philippine standards—there’s a short-course Olympic pool, and the school cafeteria has a “crepe station”—but you wouldn’t have known it from the old exteriors.
“The school didn’t really have a ‘face,’” notes Calma. “When you entered, it wasn’t very celebratory. It was like going into a warehouse or something.”
Compared with the old building’s somewhat muted and anonymous style, Calma’s new glass and concrete, five-story building projects a sleek modernity while still blending with the existing structures. It serves as a new gateway to the school and ties together all the structures into one holistic learning environment.
The son of modernist pioneer Lor Calma, the younger Calma has forged his own path in his architectural practice.
Easy to spot
A Calma design is easy to spot. It stands apart from the rest of the buildings on whatever city block it stands on. Individual character is his stock-in-trade, as it is his father’s.
In particular, he’s won acclaim for innovative and distinctive designs for educational institutions such as the College of St. Benilde School of Design and Arts, the Henry Sy Innovation Center in Miriam College, and the Mind Museum.
“A school is a place where you can actually change the perception of students,” he says.
Design can help define the culture of a place. The way spaces are organized in a building can either stimulate or stifle discourse. Thoughtful design is particularly critical in a place intended for education.
Calma’s methodology begins with questioning conventional wisdom and received knowledge.
“We didn’t follow the efficiency standard for schools, which is 80 percent classroom space and 20 percent corridors,” he says. “The open spaces are bigger than the classrooms. Open space is also a classroom—it’s a place where you can learn, interact with other people, have a performance or display art.”
Learning takes place not only in the classrooms, he explains, but in the school’s “interstitial spaces”—corridors, open areas, shared spaces—where students can congregate, share ideas and collaborate. These are avenues for free expression.
From the street, the building presents itself as a wall of glass broken horizontally by asymmetrical curvilinear forms that echo the curvatures of the old building’s roof.
One enters from a recessed drop-off through a series of glass doors into the main lobby. The layout makes going to class feel as momentous as going to the theater, which—among other things—the school actually is.
Upon entering, one realizes that what appears to be an elongated, elliptical shape from the street is actually one side of a triangular footprint, with the apex leading into the school’s older buildings.
The Calma design philosophy uses the site as a launch pad for ideas, the architect explains. The triangular shape of the lot pretty much determined how the building evolved from ground level up. It’s a vertical campus, and the near-absence of parallel walls provided a template that enabled the designer to avoid the “stacked shoeboxes” look that is the pitfall of generic school buildings.
Inside, the overwhelming impression is one of light and space. Daylight fills the atrium from a skylight, and reflects off the white walls and ceilings. There is hardly any need for artificial lighting before sundown.
At the same time, the atrium forms an air shaft through which warm air can escape through vents at the ceiling line, when cooler air is allowed in through the doors and windows, a form of passive cooling that supplements the building’s central air-conditioning.
The ground-floor auditorium is a black-box performance space that can be adapted for multiple uses. Apart from theatrical and musical performances, it can be utilized for talks, meetings, moving-up ceremonies and other school rituals. With movable seating, lighting and acoustic wall panels, the space can be configured in any number of ways to fit a variety of needs for larger or smaller groups. At the same time, it is fully equipped to teach students the elements of staging and production.
Above it is the first level intended for dance and drama, featuring a number of studios and rehearsal spaces.
The second level is for music studies, featuring acoustically insulated studios for individual practice, as well as larger spaces for ensemble playing. It opens into an outdoor amphitheater which provides an alternative performance space.
There is also a rock-climbing wall for after-school recreation.
The third level is reserved for the visual arts, with work spaces and facilities for budding painters and sculptors.
The building’s open layout means an individual student can see almost the entire campus from any point within. It fosters a sense of community among students and staff.
“Students should be able to see what other students are doing,” says Calma. “The school should be open to collaboration. You can have events that may not necessarily be part of the school’s program that students can learn from. That’s where creativity happens.”
Having grown up in a house that his father designed, including the interiors, furniture and most of the artwork, Calma more or less imbibed architecture from the cradle, as it were.
“As a young person, I saw that my friends’ houses were not as designed as the house I lived in,” he recalls. “It was a three-story high space with a lot of art—it wasn’t a typical house.”
The iconoclastic view of architecture which he inherited from his father was further reinforced by his architectural studies at Columbia University, where he was encouraged to challenge norms.
As principal designer for Lor Calma and Partners and his own firm, Calma has been waging his own quiet war against design conformity and the homogenization of urban space since beginning his practice.
“It’s still a struggle to make clients understand what architecture is,” he says. “They still think architecture is just the building. They don’t see it as an instigator of culture. They don’t see it as culture.”