Down, Not Out

After the board of trustees of San Francisco’s Lick-Wilmerding High School committed to a crucial campus expansion plan in 2000, it decided to do what few learning institutions of its kind can: open the project up to an invited competition. A private college-prep school with emphasis on architecture, design, and technical arts, Lick (for short) saw an opportunity to let the students participate in the selection of the winning design and peer into the construction process.

To maximize student involvement, five competing firms not only pitched the competition jury—made up of five architects, the headmaster, an alumnus, a trustee, and a student—but also made assembly presentations to the student body. Their models were displayed in the library, and students voted through ballots or e-mail (though the board had the final say). “Because all our students take drafting and design, and many take architecture, they were very pleased to be included in the competition process,” headmaster Al Adams says. “They took it seriously, and their input was weighed equally seriously.”

The school had outgrown its facilities and needed a modern shop, expanded cafeteria, and additional seating for its performance hall. But this already cramped urban campus had little vacant space left for the project. The site was almost a given; it was assumed that the expansion would build either on the last remaining expanse of lawn or on the campus perimeter, either option choking off the view of the hilly neighborhood to the east. Local firm Pfau Architecture furnished the one option that preserved both the grass and the vista. “The vote was overwhelmingly for Pfau,” design instructor Goranka Poljak-Hoy says. “The other firms pretty much did what we asked them to do. This was the firm that opened new horizons.”

The Pfau design took advantage of the sloped site and proposed building down rather than out. By excavating underneath the last patch of green, and situating the machine and electronics shops around a courtyard, the architects created space for the new technology and design center, with access from both levels, without impinging on the precious space or panorama. “It’s always been nice just to have that open view,” junior Alex Bodell says. “To have a building there would have been like a military camp.” The cafeteria and student center is an extension of an existing classroom building that overlooks the shop complex. (The previous cafeteria was so small that students sat and ate in the hallways.) The airy 6,000-square-foot hall has brought a relief that is visible in the faces of the students who lounged and gossiped around tables there on the first day of school in September.

That day’s opening ceremonies, complete with noisy Chinese lion dancers, allowed students and faculty their first glimpse at the finished project. Headmaster Adams surveyed the courtyard at the center of the shop core. “I knew from the beginning that it was going to be really beautiful and really functional,” he said, reflecting a characteristic opinion that day. “But I had no idea that it would integrate this campus the way it does.”

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