When Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM) principal Roger Duffy first arrived on Washington, D.C.’s St. Albans School campus in 2003, he saw a lone man in a cardigan sipping a coffee in the early morning light. Hoping to get a leg up for his interview, Duffy asked the man for a tour. It wasn’t until later that Duffy realized his tour guide was, in fact, headmaster Vance Wilson, the man who would become his client for the next six years.
Nestled on the grounds of the Washington National Cathedral, in a landscaped close designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, the St. Albans campus comprises several architecturally disparate hillside buildings. SOM’s 70,000-square-foot Marriott Hall—half a renovation of a 1970s building (stripped down to the concrete frame) and half new construction—connects the existing facilities and adds classroom and social spaces.
Despite being unabashedly modern, Marriott Hall fits so well within its historic context, it’s hard to see that it wasn’t always a part of it. The entrance to the new building is deliberately quiet and unassuming: a single-story volume in glass and stone. Duffy specified masonry to match the color and mortar style of the original 1909 school building that sits adjacent. The real drama of Marriott Hall begins as the ground plane falls away to reveal three floors below the entrance level, and projecting volumes, intersecting terraces, and shifts in material disrupt the building’s long, rectangular mass.
Duffy asserted that what the school needed was a landscape solution, not a building solution, which resonated with the selection committee. His team visited the Olmsted archives in Brookline, Mass., where they found the original drawings for the cathedral close—and realized that there was once a direct line of sight from the campus’ main archway to the Capitol dome. Reinstating that exact view was not possible, since the 1970s building was erected in the way and because of other construction along that visual axis in the intervening century, but Duffy’s team nonetheless developed their interior strategy around it. The circulation spine of the new building follows the Olmsted axis, ending in a window that frames the modern vista.
Nine massive planters, each with 3 or more feet of soil, are populated with species of trees and shrubbery found elsewhere in Olmsted’s landscape. Balconies provide break-out space for students, as do green roofs planted with grass, trees, field turf, and sedum. The goal is that in five years, when the plantings are mature, the building will resemble a tree house. “There’s a symbiosis with nature,” says Duffy, “but there will be a balance. Right now the architecture is in the fore, but it will be softened by nature over time.”
The architecture encourages students, teachers, and visitors to traverse the elevator-accessible campus via a series of exterior staircases. Bordered by masonry walls, the meandering stairs lead up and over the structures on site—an effect that Duffy likens to an Italian hill town. But in the shadow of the cathedral, the staircases also evoke a pilgrim’s path. Starting at the base of the site, one can walk up and over the new building—without ever going inside it—to reach the cathedral.
Presented with more than one path, people sometimes go astray. But without the journey, the pilgrim’s progress would not be nearly so sweet.