THE INVISIBLE SCHOOL OF THE ARTS

For a few days I’ve been trying to track down images of a well-known and sufficiently public place, but the images will not be found.

It is a high school, one that has existed for decades and has accrued some decent accolades. I went to art camp there as a teenager, and found that their summer programming had an anarchic approach to time management, so I spent many hours roaming the shopworn, alarmingly dim hallways just taking in the atmosphere. It is an ugly place to be sure – brutalist in all the worst ways, made more punishing by lysergic student murals and a general lack of upkeep. But it was an evocative place, and I loved it the way one has to love brutalism: for the sheer disrespectful nature of it.

Nearly all the photos that exist of the campus are from the back. Overlooking a track and field course, the building is arranged along a shallow hillside in three graduated layers, long and flat, a continuous covered staircase bisecting them in the manner of a knife through cake. It has factory-style pane glass windows, and these are pockmarked by canvases, butcher paper, and other art school detritus turning them into very many blind eyes. To its left there is another building, a satellite campus on its own hillock, and straddling the valley between them there is a covered portico, its thick, octagonal roofing a maladroit yellow. A drab garden spills down the hillside beneath this vector point before terminating in a tall fence.

I’m looking for photos of the portico, as it is the only area that connects pedestrian traffic to the street and functions as the heart of the architectural organism. The yellow siding, which appears to be an octagon when viewed from the track but is really a wedge, conceals thick, angled support beams that make the corrugated roofing appear papery by comparison. Inset skylights that have never been cleaned make standing under the portico feel like being in a sewer. In rain it oppressively dark underneath, and incredibly loud. It is held many stories aloft by fat concrete columns, and kiosks of dated vending machines appear to cower beneath – far too many vending machines, arranged in occultic groups of three. Each one contains slightly different items, but only just, requiring a dreamlike dance to find the machine that has the particular soda you want even though you’re pretty sure you’ve already checked all of them twice. A theater building almost butts up against the west end of the portico, a close talker, and a cafeteria annex is slung low under the north end. To the right of this cafeteria, a set of shallow, widening steps allows access to the bare, open-air courtyards stacked behind the main campus. But this is dwarfed by thick vertical blocks of additional stairways which allow arterial access up to the main building at all levels, and tunnel down through the poured concrete flooring into subbasements – music warrens, which I was always too frightened to access because the lights were always off. These stair blocks are covered in motion-sick murals lacking in scale and symmetry, and where they aren’t, are the same sickly yellow as the portico siding. The lighting inside them is parking-garage orange, and hums. The space encourages a thunderous echo of voices and footfalls, and stepping into the cafeteria feels like putting on a pair of noise-cancelling headphones. It was part school, part asylum, tricking your sense of scale and directionality always. It was easy to get lost, even with the portico as lodestar.

I can find one clear photo of this central space pulled from a local news article published in 2015. It is shot from the wide steps next to the cafeteria, and focuses mainly on the block of stairs, with a sliver of the central courtyard beyond. Others, providing tantalizing glimpses only, can be found by deep-stalking the school’s social media accounts going back years, but the campus is shown only incidentally in the background. Tiny black and white photos pulled from a digitized 1970s yearbook show the school from the street, and finally provide a full view of the central artery of the portico from above. Other than these, I can only find photos of the back of the campus, its least offensive part. The track is manicured, and the building itself is hulking, but distant enough to shut off any imaginative impulse. It is impossible to imagine oneself inside, figuring out how it would be navigated, because one simply cannot see enough of it. You can tell that there are things going on outside of the frame. Its three layers are suggestions of form more than form itself. The totality of the campus, in this imagining, is three stacked hallways.

I can understand the desire to conceal; a place with a good reputation could stand to be less of an eyesore. But in this concealment the very architectural concept is rewritten, eliminating key passageways and reimagining the building to be something it never was. Concrete and steel are made mutable by omission; the parts undocumented become unavailable to the public, and might as well not exist except for those who have physically been there to witness them. By providing a selective account, the character of the place can be retooled to be more welcoming, or on the other hand entirely secretive. The internet has created a form of selective architecture, paring away the undesirable bits: a facade of a facade.