The old Montezuma-Cortez High School, built in 1966, was an antiquated building. Asbestos-based ceiling tiles were falling in the auditorium, and mercury-emitting floors in the gym contributed to poor air quality.
In 2012, district officials decided the aging structure was less and less feasible to maintain, and the idea to replace it was launched. The man charged with designing a modern schoolhouse was Benjamin Gardner, principal architect with Dekker/Perich/Sabatini in Albuquerque.
Gardner said the new high school was designed based on input from a local advisory team, teachers, students and the community at large. Feedback was gathered through open houses, precedent studies, tours of new high schools and an online survey. Program spaces, sizes and relationships were vetted during user meetings and were documented.
“Every design decision reflects this collaborative process,” said Gardner.
Gardner envisioned that the school and landscape work in unison. The placement and orientation of the building was directly related to the landscapes of Cortez.
The building comprises a common area that houses the core functions of dining, student lobby, gym and media center. The two classroom wings extend from the core to create a U-shape, with a large courtyard open on one side. The courtyard and entry open to the west toward the honored Sleeping Ute Mountain.
“The courtyard circulation routes and gathering areas are shaped by curvilinear arcs,” said Gardner. “They serve the function of providing seating and student gathering spaces and are related to regional Native American patterns.”
With amphitheater seating, the courtyard – positioned to be warm in the winter, shaded in the summer and buffered from spring winds – also provides space for outdoor classrooms.
Gardner also pointed out that design takes advantage of panoramic views of the La Plata Mountains in the east and Mesa Verde National Park to the south.
He added the design also promoted safety and security through passive measures such as curbside drop-offs, a highly visible entry courtyard and a single building entry.
Regarded as champion of design that encourages social and academic development, Gardner is a University of New Mexico graduate with bachelor’s and master’s degrees in architecture. He’s a registered architect in Colorado and New Mexico, an Army veteran and a member of the American Institute of Architects.