Steel Strings

The Outdoor Learning Center at Casis Elementary in Austin has transformed a formerly neglected plot of land next to a parking lot into an open-air classroom in a garden setting. Designed and built by Baldridge Architects with the help of a crew of parent and student volunteers, the Learning Center has become a much-loved spot on campus. “We wanted to build a structure that would go beyond just meeting the school’s programmatic needs for outdoor and hands-on learning,” said Burton Baldridge, AIA. “The classroom is designed to teach the kids about math, science, architecture, and the environment.” 

The Learning Center supports the school’s organic gardening program and houses community work tables where up to 40 students can study or play protected from the sun and rain. It also includes storage for teaching supplies and gardening equipment. A rainwater collection system anchors the steel structure, and its principal 45-ft length floats above the ground and spans an existing storm water drainage spillway. The building engages its primary users directly and features a lower, child-scale roof as well as child-scale tables and benches. 

“We wanted it to be playful,” said Baldridge. “We created a vine-supporting enclosure made of 3/8-in steel dowel that looks like a kid wrapped the entire project in string.” The rainwater collection adds to the learning experience and is exposed so that students can see and hear the water moving from the roof into the collection tanks. 

Throughout the course of a typical school day, the Outdoor Learning Center accommodates a wide spectrum of activities, shifting effortlessly from an impromptu classroom, to a lunch hall for teachers, to a mathematics lab. “The fact that the structure has integrated so naturally into the school’s daily routine while taking on a life of its own has been simultaneously gratifying and remarkable to us as designers,” commented Baldridge.  

Additional photos in this article are expanded content for the July/August 2014 issue of Texas Architect.