When Design Is Also the Teacher

Can the building you attend school in play a role in who you become? Tucker Viemeister thinks so.

Design has ramifications beyond the simple form and function–teacups are actors in rituals and environments are where we stage experiences. Turns out the design of my grade school building played a bigger role in my education than I thought.


I grew up in Yellow Springs, Ohio, home of Antioch College, where I attended the Antioch School. Arthur Morgan started it in 1921, the same year in New York that Elizabeth Irwin founded the Little Red School House and seven years after City & Country School opened. It was very progressive when progressive was really experimental! While we played with blocks and made up plays, from nursery school through sixth grade, the student teachers actually did experiments with us! Some worked and others didn’t work so well!

Concurrent with my high school reunion, the Antioch School had its own funky little reunion. As I chatted with some other much younger alumni, I was amazed that many of us had had similar educational experiences even though the teachers and curriculum were very different. How could that be? What was the defining force?


Birch Hall at Antioch College, designed by Eero Saarinen and Max Mercer


Then someone told me that the building was designed by Eero Saarinen, the master architect of the TWA terminal at JFK (now part of the Rockwell Group-designed JetBlue terminal), the St. Louis Arch, and some of my favorite chairs, which you can all see at an exhibit at the Museum of the City of New York, Saarinen and the Spirit of Innovation. The simplicity of the Antioch School building that I took for granted as a kid was designed that way on purpose! Turns out, Saarinen was a major influence in Yellow Springs. In 1944 Saarinen and Swanson & Associates started a master plan for the Antioch College campus. In 1947, with a local architect, Max Mercer, Saarinen designed Birch Hall. In 1953 the Antioch School moved into the current school building on Corry Street, designed, they say, by Max Mercer with at least some influence from Saarinen (I say).


Antioch School plan sketch by Tucker Viemeister

The building is made from three rectangles, two dominant ones make an L-shape with a small thin one sticking up for the smoke stack. One side is the multipurpose “Big Room” for assemblies, plays and art. The long side of the L is a row of three square classrooms for each of the three age groups in chronological order. Sets of buffer rooms separate and connect them–the shared spaces made concrete the idea of transition: The younger kids could share the future in those small rooms, as the older groups shared the past.


The Antioch School, designed by Max Mercer

Windows: one whole side of the building was floor to ceiling industrial windows so the kids could look out of their classroom to the vast world they lived in (actually the college golf course). The flat roof seemed to float over the big band of clerestory windows on the other side of the room. So although you couldn’t actually see out the other side, you were constantly shown that there was more out there–literally another side to the story.

That is what I realized talking to that younger graduate–that the architecture taught us, through plan and elevation, to look out of our classroom. Understand the context. See both sides. Learn about what those other sides have in common and how they affect each other. The design of the building was one of Antioch School’s experiments that worked the best!


Read Tucker Viemeister’s blog What’s Cookin’?
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Tucker Viemeister leads the Lab at
Rockwell Group, an interactive technology design group combining
digital interaction design, modeling, and prototyping for hotels and
restaurants, casinos, packaging, and products. The LAB seeks to blur
the line between the physical and virtual, exploring and experimenting
with interactive digital technology in objects, environments, and
stories. Tucker also co-founded the collaborative Studio Red with David
Rockwell that was dedicated to innovation for Coca-Cola. Since joining
Rockwell Group in 2004, Tucker has been instrumental in the design and
development of JetBlue’s Marketplace at the JFK International Airport,
“Hall of Fragments,” an installation that opened the Corderie
dell’Arsenale at the 2008 Venice Biennale, a “living wall” for the
lobby of the Sheraton Toronto, the traveling Red Lounge for Coca-Cola,
and MGM City Centre in Las Vegas.


About the author

Tucker Viemeister is Lab Chief of Rockwell Group’s interactive technology design Lab combining digital interaction design, modeling and prototyping for hospitality, retail, packaging and products. The Lab experiments with interactive digital technology in objects, environments and stories - blurring the line between the physical and virtual