Written by Merry Fidler
Most people can generally agree that middle school is one of life’s lower points. You’re this transient being with jumbo feet like buttresses for your disproportionate body, a complexion defined as just “oily,” and no real idea of who you are or where you fit in. You spend most days wishing there was a hole in the ground to sequester until adulthood while simultaneously fuming at no one noticing you or taking you seriously.
It wasn’t until we began work on this documentary that I realized how much school buildings reflect the dismissive attitude we often have toward middle schoolers — that disregard we develop from not knowing how to handle them. These students (and their saint-like teachers) get hand-me-down, defunct high school buildings to serve out their pubescent purgatory. At least half of my middle school education, for instance, took place in trailers.
Imagine my awe, then, at seeing the middle school that Dake Wells designed for Reeds Spring, Missouri. This awe wasn’t just at the building’s design, stunning as it is, but also at the town for working so hard to make sure these students felt noticed and had a facility that met their specific needs. They all could have efficiently settled for a run-of-the-mill classroom box and patted themselves on the back. But, as Brandon Dake says in the video, “Good enough isn’t good enough for us.” The result of this attitude is an extraordinary gem in the rough of rural Missouri.
This building project’s unexpected nature and subsequent success have garnered Dake Wells (a well-known architecture firm out of Springfield, MO) a lot of attention since the school’s completion. This year, the EdSpaces 2020 conference’s powers asked Dake Wells to give a special presentation about the RSMS’ design. EdSpaces is kind of like the meeting for architects. Our documentary served as part of that virtual presentation.
Upon first hearing the story myself, I completely understood why the building was being nationally honored by other architects. Reeds Spring is a small town of fewer than 1,000 people about an hour outside of Springfield, a sleepy site peppered with old buildings that testify to a more bustling time. It’s a peculiar place in that everyone you meet there seems one-of-a-kind — an artist, a rocker, a yurt builder. But from how the town looks alone, you’d never guess this middle school and its cathedral-like atrium laid just over the hill.
Our team works hard to make sure we find a personal connection with each project we do, but this one didn’t take work for a few reasons. Firstly, hearing Dake Well’s creative process was both an encouragement and an education. Here is this acclaimed firm with incredible talent facing many of the same challenges we do regarding creativity, collaboration, budgets, and even logistical nightmares. Dake Wells is an inspiration to me in how to solve problems with extraordinary creativity. This middle school, for example, is built into a ravine. The ordinary solution to building on or near a gorge would be to level it or move the building site entirely. Instead, Dake Wells decided to use it, and in so doing, was able to give the school more than it could have otherwise.
Secondly, and perhaps most importantly, this project struck a chord because many of us on the Double Jump Team know what it’s like to be a kid living in varying levels of obscurity. We are those Reeds Spring kids growing up in towns where the poverty level is several ticks over the national average. We are the kids who equated our self-worth with what we saw around us, which was nothing much.
This video opens with the line, “We think design is for everyone, not just those who can afford it. Not just those who have a lot of money.” The architects saw these students and gave them what they deserved, which was something extraordinary. Growing up with big dreams in a small town, I used the arts as signal flares as if to say, “I’m here! See me!” Being seen would mean maybe my dreams weren’t doomed to be of the pipe variety. The architects at Dake Wells have reminded our team that we can choose to validate people or exclude them with our work. We can perpetuate the exclusivity that often comes with our industry, or we crack open the door in a way that few did for us. Here’s to hoping we always remember to pursue the latter.