Lycée Francais Campus Showcases Bendheim’s Channel Glass

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This editorial content was originally published in Architectural Record, March 2004 edition.

Polshek Partnership maintains an old school’s elegance while delivering space, light, and unity to its new building.
by Sam Lubell
Lycée Français’ new campus on Manhattan’s Upper East Side offers a study in contradictions. Divided into north (Upper School) and south (Lower School) towers and linked in the center by common spaces, the building alternates between spacious and intimate, Modern and traditional, practical and elegant, urban and insular. The architect, Polshek Partnership, has skillfully integrated a wide array of competing needs into a building program that was demanding even by New York City standards.
The French school made the difficult decision to leave its beautiful (but cramped) Beaux Arts town houses, scattered on six sites throughout the East Side, in 1999. Completion of the new quarters in 2003 made Lycée Français the first independent school in Manhattan to build a new facility in decades (like the Lycée, New York’s other schools had for years been adding new buildings as needed in a piecemeal fashion).
Before the move, says Yves Thézé, the school’s head, students of various ages had little sense of connection with each other, while most spent considerable time in transit. Thézé says he took an average of twenty cabs a week, shuttling between the school’s various buildings. Thus the new location provides more space and modern facilities and also, Thézé says, a school spirit and a sense of community that was long-missing.
But accommodating 1,250 students and faculty once housed in six buildings into one, 158,000-square-foot space was not achieved without a struggle. Another formidable effort was incorporating the cherished elegance of the school’s former buildings, as well as the strict French desire for order, into a sleek Modern building that had no interest in trying to imitate the past.
With space at a premium, Polshek first pushed areas with no need for natural illumination, like the gymnasiums and auditorium, underground, through extensive excavation.
Above ground, the firm employed horizontal sight lines throughout the building to maximize the appearance of space. For example, one can see straight into classrooms on the north side from carefully aligned rooms on the far south.
Tall spaces at the school’s “coeur”, or heart, utilize both vertical and horizontal connectivity to enhance feelings of volume. Here, Polshek maximizes the central area by stacking a simple yet refined courtyard above the commons, a large room vital to maintaining community. Skylights illuminate the commons, which is also bordered by a two-story glass curtain wall. The Wall’s tall windows establish a visual connection to the adjacent two-level “grand escallier”, from where they also allow a look into the floating courtyard. Views into the courtyard from around the building not only augment the perception of nature and give students an intimate sense of orientation at all times.
The sense of height in the building is amplified by vertical bends of green-tinted channeled glass on the north-facing facade, which draw the eye skyward. These graceful windows, whose reflected light produces a gentle radiance, contribute to a reserved and elegant school that maintains a sleekness true to the modern form. (Vertical bands of precast concrete and clear windows on the south-facing facades are not nearly as effective in this respect). The interior light produced by the channeled glass is warm and glittering. “Students are mesmerized”, explains Polshek Principal Susan Rodriguez. Yet somehow, the added light enhances concentration, while the window grid’s pattern reflects the rigorous order demanded by French learning, evidenced by classrooms of almost uniform size and shape throughout.
While the building has quickly suffered the scratches and knocks expected for an edifice serving more than a thousand youngsters, evidence of its success can be found in the top floor art room, where Upper School teacher Tim Riordan works.
Riordan, a professed claustrophobe, finds his ample new space bathed in natural light (and space, thanks to skylights adjoining the fifth and forth floors), in contrast to the former school’s art rooms located in the basement. He and his students freely express delight. “It’s and inspiration just being in the classroom”, he says. Most teaching rooms are equally blessed with light, thanks to a hallway layout that puts smaller staff rooms on each tower’s inside and larger classrooms on the outside. In such a tight space, the preference for student over staff space makes it easy to see where the school’s priorities lie throughout the building. “The students come first here”, says Rodriguez.
About Bendheim

Bendheim is one of the world’s foremost resources for specialty architectural glass. Founded in New York City in 1927, the fourth-generation, family-owned company offers a virtually unlimited range of in-stock and custom architectural glass varieties. Bendheim develops, fabricates, and distributes its products worldwide. The company maintains production facilities in New Jersey and an extensive showroom in New York City