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Converting a Back Alley into a Gothic Garden for Children

The initial charge came from St. Chrysostom’s headmistress, disappointed that her already meager outdoor space was further comprised by the addition of a fire stair and elevator shaft landing on her precious day school real estate. Sharon and Peter Exley, principals at Chicago-based ArchitectureIsFun Inc., discovered that in reality the play space, already set within a back alley, was now violated by the historic renovation’s modifications for accessibility. Where many are flummoxed by spaces as small and undesirable as this, the two partners found charm and possibility.

The Value of Small Things
The school at St. Chrysostom’s Episcopal Church in Chicago is thriving and, much like the church itself, suffers from its own sprawl and growth. Never part of the architectural plans, the day school’s outdoor space was always ad hoc and rather grim. Its sole and sufficient merit was that it afforded teachers and students the opportunity to be out-of-doors in safe and sheltered surroundings. There were many disturbing issues at hand from mold to entrapment. Typical playground equipment would never fit on the existing plan, yet teachers and staff wanted to utilize every inch of the mere 450 square feet and many wanted to spend their own quiet moments there. How do you find value and relevance in small things?

The partners and staff at ArchitectureIsFun have found that architecture for children is typically undervalued—where more often than not, the site suggested for children’s play and learning is the ubiquitous basement, corner, or in this case, back alley. Despite of, or in spite of, such challenges, the design firm has successfully found solutions that transform these rather inadequate, unappealing, leftover spaces into relevant places of learning, play, performance and reflection. Contemplating relevance and determining what is wanted and what is required is essential and critical to the process of generating architecture for children. Avoiding preconceptions, the design team took an inclusive approach at St. Chrysostom’s: collaborating with the headmistress, the rector, elders, the deacon, staff, teachers, children and parents.

Envisioning: The Search for Possibilities
Envisioning sessions were held to discover the “blue sky” of the dreams for a new outdoor space. Participating in decision-making invests all in the project. Within this public forum, everyone was asked to reflect nostalgically upon their childhood occupations and their early school and church memories—from games played to forts built, and from first communion to singing in the choir. Typically, there is a lot of reflection upon the experience of marking space, creating enclosure, changing perspectives, shifting roles, alongside very personal religious moments. Within this open arena, the design team began to shift the discussion from personal memory to personal desires for the project. In this way, everyone has been reminded of the value of small things—moments in time and place that matter greatly. This is when ideas and concerns begin to flow. Every thought is recorded and considered. Envisioning is a process where the design team listens.

At St. Chrysostom’s, these sessions suggested a place that might fulfill educational and spiritual criteria. Could the outdoor space help children re-connect with the out-of-doors? Could children play with nature? Could they explore scientific notions? Would there be space for teachers to tell a story? Could children perform? Would there be room to play? What about adults, staff and teachers—would they be able to find a moment outside? Could the space multi-task so adults could have lunch or socialize out-of-doors? These critical sessions uncovered a strong desire to create an inspirational place, despite its size and proximity to the fire stair. Lastly and perhaps most importantly, the headmistress mandated that it be beautiful and colorful.

A Cathedral of Trees
Following the envisioning, it was clear to the designers that the architecture, whilst for children, be sensitive to its place within St. Chrysostom’s and its potential for experience. In harmony with the church, education and play could be brought together—play being a child’s vocation and preoccupation. The design solution ultimately demonstrates how the day school views today’s child; that what was created demonstrates how we value our children and care about their future. The small 450 square feet space at St. Chrysostom’s Day School began to emerge as a part of the larger religious construct—carrying on the church’s tenets for connectedness, celebration, community and ceremony.

A cathedral of trees now rescues the dreary, urban back alley; converting an uplifting Gothic Children’s Garden into a place of delight, inspiration and creativity for children and adults at play in the out-of-doors. Soaring arches, reaching up to embrace the sky, articulate a purposeful space that feels larger than its physical boundaries. The verticality of the arches reinforces an awareness of the expansiveness of the outdoors, while creating niches of exploration and performance. The alley is now adorned with art-making, the fire stair is now a performance hall, and the lofty vaults create canopies of artful wind chimes. The tracery, arches, vaults and quatrefoil peek-a-boo cutouts build upon the historic church’s Gothic sensibilities in an efficient, relevant way to integrate reflection, storytelling, performance, painting, gardening and simple science exploration within a modular grid.

The Gothic children’s garden is now a safe, secure and accessible place where children are free to make choices, to have physical and cognitive experiences out in the “open air.” In the Day School classrooms, rich, tactile and engaging materials surround children. That concept is carried outside. The Big Box, for example, doubles as a planting box and container for all sorts of natural materials, from leaves to river rocks and from twigs to soil. Wood has always played a pivotal role in the traditions carried on at the church; the 100-year gigantic wooden candlesticks attached to the pews are still lit at ceremonies. Here, under the grand arches, children will parade, sit around a storyteller on the throne, or gather under the chandelier, all unexpected outdoor elements that add charm and delight.

How Is Success Measured?
The measure of the Gothic Children’s Garden success is its almost year-round use—less quantifiable but noticeable is its impact as a magical place that children and their caregivers want to go. The school’s annual fundraising auction was held just after the envisioning sessions. During that evening, a spirited rendering and model spoke to parents, staff and members of the church community about the transformative power a small space could have. The design was also efficient, affordable and realistic and, as such, the project funded itself as a welcome amenity. During construction, staff watched one particular child long for the project to complete. This endearing architecture with its tracery, arches and peek-a-boo quatrefoil cutouts has established its functional importance as a landscape for play and learning, building upon the historic church’s Gothic sensibilities and emotive beauty—and bringing a smile to at least one child’s face. The entire school and church community value this outdoor learning and play environment, not for its smallness, but for its relevance. The headmistress loves her beautiful and colorful Gothic Children’s Garden.

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St. Chrysostom’s Episcopal Church in Chicago has opened a Gothic Children’s Garden created in a tight 450-square-foot space. The new garden mirrors the historic church’s architecture and sense of reverence—complete with archways built into the design. Yet, at the same time, the space is colorful, inviting and encourages children, parents and teachers to explore and create memories. (Photo courtesy of ArchitectureIsFun Inc.)

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The small children’s space at St. Chrysostom’s was the result of numerous envisioning sessions where attendees were asked to draw upon powerful childhood memories. The result is a design that encompasses areas for reflection, painting, storytelling, performance and learning. (Photo courtesy of ArchitectureIsFun Inc.)