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Plans for the future

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THE VISION — A BUILDING TO EDUCATE THE BEST

It started with a vision: if the school were to become one of the best in the country, it needed to specialize in a certain area.

And in the 1960’s, the administration decided math and science would be that area. 

Hoping to become a pioneer in the two fields and reach its vision, the school sought Texas Instruments founders and school board members, Eugene McDermott and Cecil H. Green, to help make the vision a reality.

With their help, a brand new building was constructed. 

Equipped with state-of-the-art labs, classrooms and a planetarium, the McDermott-Green Science and Mathematics Quadrangle was recognized across the country.

But 50 years later, the school has changed. The fields of science and math have expanded to the field of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) education. And the school is entering a new era — with a new vision.

To be one of the best in the country, the school must create an exemplary building incorporating not only science and math, but also technology and engineering.

And to help carry out this vision, the school began work with world-renowned architecture firm, Robert A.M. Stern Architects (RAMSA), based in New York City.

The firm’s namesake and senior partner, Robert A.M. Stern, is both an award-winning architect and the Dean of the Yale School of Architecture. With such a distinguished reputation, Headmaster David Dini says the firm has not disappointed.

THE BUILDINGS — THE SCHOOL’S SCIENTIFIC PAST AND FUTURE

Time magazine applauded the success of the original vision in 1961 when the science building was featured in an article.

“In that article it said, ‘St. Mark’s School of Texas has cut off Andover’s business in Texas,” David Dini said. “It was because of that really ambitious vision that I think set the school on an important course that we continue to build on.”

All those years ago, that article put the school, then a little-known all-boys school, on the map. 

Instead of boarding school, boys seeking state of the art education in Dallas needed to look no further than 10600 Preston Rd. 

Now, as the school transitions to this new era, the administration hopes to replace the once-innovative building with a structure equally as influential for its time.

This building will provide students with state-of-the-art-labs and classroom facilities to experiment and learn in a hands-on experience.

“We could inhabit [the current] building and survive,” science instructor Doug Rummel said. “It’s a beautiful facility. Other schools would die for something this nice. But the 1961 space is obviously needing a lot of work, time, and love. It’s needing to be updated. The issue is that how you learn is different. The idea is that it’s not so much everyone in a line and memorizing and regurgitating as much as we are trying to do active experiments.”

Science Department Chair Fletcher Carron sees the potential of the new building, providing students with new opportunities like a state of the art robotics lab, a new greenhouse, a maker slab for engineering and a biotechnology lab.

“There are a few things that [the current building] can’t do,” Carron said. “There are a few things that this building can do that the new one will just do better.”

In terms of campus layout, the building will replace the west wing of the science building and have entrances on the north and east sides, while also connecting the outdoor space behind and in front of the building.

“The design maintains and improves both the courtyard to the south of existing McDermott-Green building and also the currently-underused courtyard to the west of the Library and south of the Lower School building,” architect Graham Wyatt said. “The new building will open directly onto both of these outdoor spaces.  The new building will also open to a walkway leading to the Lower School drop off and will serve as an important symbol of the St. Mark’s School when viewed from Preston Road.”

With this layout, the new structure will increase the Lower and Middle School’s involvement, making it a hub of activity for students on campus.

“The building will allow us to bring Lower School science in here, so we’ll have a dedicated Lower School lab, and that should allow the lower school also more access to things like the planetarium, the greenhouse and the courtyard,” Carron said. “We’ll have a new and modernized planetarium. We’ll also have more classrooms, so for example there’s only one physics lab right now and there’s a real scheduling nightmare to try and get all the labs in there, so it will allow us to spread out and get what we need done.”

While the new structure will be the focal point of STEM studies on campus, many thought certain aspects of the current building should also be incorporated into the new science building.

“The two story building will stay,” Carron said. “Everything on the south side of the periodic table comes down, and the new building gets built in its place. So we’re not rebuilding the entire science facility, but the new one will be much larger than the part we’re raising.”

While construction will likely start at the end of the 2016-2017 school year, the building will be done in stages because the school will have to balance classes with construction time.

“It will probably be a phase project,” Carron said. “Most likely, there will be new construction first while we continue to occupy the two story building, and then once this new construction is complete we can do a lot of classes in the new building while we renovate the two story building. A goal would be to get all of the classrooms to the same level rather than having state of the art classrooms over here while some of them are 26 years old.”

Rummel believes the building will provide students with even more opportunities, especially kinesthetically as three-dimensional printers and other devices will allow students to experience learning in a new way.

“[We could be] three-dimensionally printing a skull that was found two weeks ago in Johannesburg as soon as they scan the stuff in the cage in South Africa and it’s posted up online, we will be able to 3D print it.” Rummel said. “Do our own measurements, do our own hypotheses. Our main job is to make sure you are safe, but also to give you the stuff you need and just watch you run.“

Another improvement on the old building will be its service to members beyond student and faculty. Administrators hope the building will be more inclusive to family members and people beyond the community here at the school.

“We want to have build nights where we can say, ‘Okay fifth grade build night. Come in the lab. Bring your whole family,” Rummel said. “Saturday afternoons we will come in and we will just have an astronomy day, a build day. We want it to be very community-based and want it to be a place where people can come hear lectures from outside of the campus. A place where we might even be able to teach other science teachers the best way to teach labs.”

THE LEGACY — A MAINSTAY FOR DECADES TO COME

When Dini first walked on campus in 1994, the Alumni Commons was under construction.

Hicks’s Gym, Nearburg Hall, Hoffman Center, Centennial Hall, the Mullen Family Fitness Center — all staples of today’s campus — nowhere to be seen.

Now, as the school, so different from the campus he first visited more than 20 years ago, is wrapping up preliminary planning for a new two story, state-of-the-art science building, Dini is looking towards the future.

“I’m just excited that it’s happening and excited that it’s going to make St. Mark’s better,” Dini said. “I feel like we have an obligation to always look to the future with high aspirations and we’ve inherited a great legacy because so many people looked to the future and said, ‘We should dream big, and we should set the highest standards.’”

Wyatt hopes the building will be an intellectual hub for students on campus that will last for decades to come.

“We hope that the new building will become a destination for all students on campus; that the lounge and atrium become desired locations to meet, study and work on projects; that all students want to see the exciting work taking place in the maker lab and robotics studio; and that the planetarium will take full advantage of the latest in projection technology, allowing students to explore and explain the cosmos, and also to visualize the structure of proteins or the latest in digital art,” Wyatt said.

The RAMSA firm hopes to add to the school’s style and blend the building with existing structures to fit seamlessly with the rest of campus.

“The St. Mark’s School is blessed by an architecturally coherent campus.  While many schools build buildings that express the design fad of the moment, St. Mark’s has largely stuck to one architectural palette: rosy brick, warm-colored stone and pitched copper roofs,” Wyatt said. “These materials, and the ways in which they have been organized and detailed in the campus’s older buildings continue to serve as inspiration for us as we design.  We hope that anyone viewing this new building on its completion will say ‘Oh, that is clearly a St. Mark’s School building.’”

Dini credits the school’s culture as the force behind building so soon after the school finished the Centennial Challenge fundraising effort and the construction of the Hoffman and Centennial buildings.

“I really look at it as a collective school,” Dini said. “Priority and focus and aspiration and something that we’ve been thinking about for a long time and obviously with a lot of people working really hard and people that have supported it and obviously very grateful to the Winns and others who have been involved in helping make it a reality. So we still have a lot of work to get it done but it’ll be fun in a couple years when we are able to cut the ribbon on that building when it’s finished.”

THE ARCHITECTS — FROM FORGING CITIES TO NEW THE SCIENCE BUILDING

Headmaster David Dini didn’t know if they would even want the project. 

Their team designed skyscrapers, college campuses and plans for entire towns.

The 50 Connaught Road Central building in Hong Kong, China. The master plan for Celebration, Florida just outside Orlando. The George W. Bush Presidential Library on the SMU campus — all the regular scale of projects that Robert A.M. Stern Architects (RAMSA) work on.

Dini was amazed by the firm’s work.

So when the RAMSA team came to present ideas to a group of board members, volunteers and administrators called the Architecture and Construction Committee they were just as amazed as Dini was. 

“They really impressed our committee,” Dini said. “They left the room and you could tell there was a real consensus in the group. There was an overwhelming enthusiasm for the RAMSA team and what we thought they would bring to St. Mark’s.”

To Dini’s surprise, the firm wanted to step outside of its usual work on city-defining projects to do something fairly unfamiliar — a high school.

 Graham Wyatt, the lead architect for the RAMSA team working on the building, which is set for completion in the summer of 2017, sees this project as an opportunity to reimagine how STEM courses are taught not only at the school, but nationwide. 

“St. Mark’s was at the forefront of science education when I was a high school student, but a lot has changed since then,” Wyatt said. “Science education has changed: more than ever it is based on making and doing, not just listening and reading; and it is based on teamwork and project-based learning, not just individual study.” 

The firm is excited about designing a building that will accommodate those changes. Wyatt hopes the building will be equally as influential as the one it replaces.

“[The building will] serve as an exemplar for STEM education on the day it opens and for years to come,” Wyatt said.

Despite Wyatt and the firm’s extensive expertise in educational buildings, they value a back and forth communication between the school to build an aesthetically pleasing, functional building that will serve the school for years to come.

“We are not the kind of architects who will show up with a single design idea and promote it at the expense of all others,” Wyatt said. “During the past few months we have developed a variety of design options and have tested and assessed these against the St. Mark’s School’s needs and aspirations.”

The firm has consulted with many teachers and administrators as designs for the building are finalized. Wyatt believes that in order to create a great building, the community’s voice needs to be heard. 

“Many people at the St. Mark’s School have participated in this process enthusiastically and productively,” Wyatt said. “I am convinced that this process of give and take leads to the best buildings.”

Science Department Chair Fletcher Carron echoes Wyatt’s sentiment, believing the architects should add a sense of vision to what the school wants.

“Ultimately the architect is there to design what you want them to design,” Carron said. “But you don’t hire a great architect to just draw your own vision. You bring them on because they add that layer of expertise.”