D.C. Could Get This Wild, Twisty, Innovative School

The new Wilson School might be the fanciest public school building in the nation, with student needs leading its distinctive fan-like design.

Image Bjarke Ingels Group
Rendering of the Wilson School, designed by Bjarke Ingels Group and Leo A Daly (Bjarke Ingels Group)

Two notable architecture firms are coming together to create a new school in Rosslyn, Virginia, just outside the District of Columbia. Leo A Daly and Bjarke Ingels Group are designing a new Wilson School building—one that could be an architecturally significant project for the region.

The new building will replace the old Wilson School, a century-old building that Arlington County decided to demolish last year, much to the dismay of some residents. Officials argued that historic features that made the building distinctive had all been removed in the 1960s, including its portico, columns, and cupola.

If the new Wilson School building is completed as planned, Rosslyn will be getting an architectural gem worthy of what came before it. Planning documents from Arlington Public Schools reveal a distinctive torquing design. The building appears to spread out from a central pivot, like a hand fan. If the building is completed to spec, the Wilson School may be the most architecturally distinct public school in the country.

Schematic for the Wilson School, designed by Bjarke Ingels Group and Leo A Daly. (Bjarke Ingels Group)

Like any good Bjarke Ingels Group design, the plan for the Wilson School starts with a geometric conceit: Stack a series of program spaces, one on top of the other, like bricks. Then twist them so they range out like a fan. Shifting the stack preserves the whole volume but generates new pavilions. The torqued building is a school building—and it’s also a textured, terraced series of urban pavilions.

Boxy concepts are common in BIG’s work. The firm’s design for World Trade Center 2 looks like a stack of boxes that shrink as they rise. That tower also turns along a central axis. The architects’ design for W57, a pyramidal residential building in Manhattan, features a sleek façade on one side while its two other faces are jagged from the texture of the units.

Preliminary design features of the Wilson School smack of other work by the Danish firm in Washington, D.C. In 2013, the Smithsonian Institution tapped BIG for a new master plan for portions of the National Mall. In addition to earthquake-proofing the Smithsonian Castle, BIG will overhaul the Enid A. Haupt Garden, which occupies the land over the mostly subterranean Freer and Sackler Galleries and the National Museum of African Art. One prominent feature of that design is the lifted corner, a windowed wedge that opens up programming areas below grade. That’s one possible feature of the new school yard.  

For Leo A Daly, the Wilson School will be a major D.C. followup to La Casa, an award-winning supportive-housing project in the District. As Amanda Kolson Hurley explained in the Washington City Paper, Leo A Daly is a global firm known for delivering complex projects on time and under budget, an important quality for a Housing First project such as La Casa. That same quality may prove necessary to complete the Wilson School: Current planning documents show that the architecture team is still working to meet the school district’s $85.9 million budget for the building.

BIG also has experience working through bureaucratic red tape: It won the $2 billion Smithsonian master plan gig on the strength of its organizational capacity. The Wilson School, which has already undergone several design iterations, may change again before the work is finalized. Before the architects settled on the current mode, they explored a ziggurat model as well as a Jengaform building. Like the “fanning bars” concept for the building, the proposal itself is still shifting.

Several schemes considered by Bjarke Ingels Group and Leo A Daly for the Wilson School. The team settled on the “fanning bars” option. (Arlington Public Schools)

The Wilson School will mash several school programs into one. The H-B Woodlawn Program, a unique and self-tailored school for students grades 6–12, will move into the new building. So will the High Intensity Language Training program, which teaches English and secondary education to immigrants, as well as the Stratford Program, a secondary school for students with special needs. In addition, H-B is one of the Arlington schools that houses the Secondary Program for Students with High-Functioning Autism.

With its diverse programming needs, the Wilson School will be both very popular and very necessary. Those needs are reflected in the design, which divides one building into several joined spaces, with rooftop pavilions that will serve different purposes. The necessity can be measured by volume: The new Wilson School will be eight times as large as the old one. (It’s scheduled to be built in 2019.)

It’s important beyond well-to-do Arlington, too. While high design and higher education are longtime partners, high design rarely makes it into high schools. If it works, the Wilson School could serve as a model, or maybe a signal: Public schools with the means should take design seriously.

(Bjarke Ingels Group)
(Bjarke Ingels Group)
(Bjarke Ingels Group)
(Bjarke Ingels Group)
(Bjarke Ingels Group)
(Bjarke Ingels Group)
(Bjarke Ingels Group)
(Arlington Public Schools)
(Arlington Public Schools)

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