Painting project to 'transform' Gunn High | News | Palo Alto Online |


Painting project to 'transform' Gunn High

Inclusive process yields new color scheme supported by Palo Alto students, staff and parents

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In surveys and focus groups conducted by a Palo Alto architecture firm this year, Gunn High School students said their campus is big, confusing and hard to navigate, with a mostly dark-brown color scheme they described as "dull," "tired," "dreary" and "uninspired."

What they wanted, they said, were colors that would make them feel "excited," "happy," "energetic" and "empowered."

And now, they'll get that. The school board expressed strong support at its meeting Tuesday night for a proposal to repaint Gunn in a new earthy, neutral color scheme inspired in part by the trees and plants on and around the Arastradero Road campus.

The most important part of the color scheme, though, was that it was selected with deep input from the students themselves.

The Gunn administration picked up again this school year a yearslong proposal to repaint the school, first proposed by the Gunn Advisory Committee (GAC) in 2013. In December, the school's site council selected Palo Alto-based Architarian Design to lead an inclusive process for deciding on a new exterior color scheme for the campus.

In early 2016, Architarian Design staff met with the Gunn community to gather input. They held five focus groups with more than 50 students; surveyed students, staff and parents; and held activities at a sports rally and Gunn's TedX conference. They put up a series of interactive posters around the school (one had a color wheel and asked students to place dot-stickers on the colors they preferred; another had a map of the school and asked "What is a good place for murals/public art?"), tested different colors around campus and met with Gunn's student government many times. They also created a website to document their efforts along the way and ultimately held an online poll to determine which of two final design schemes the students preferred.

All in all, the firm said they reached more than 300 students, 50 staff members and 100 parents through this work.

Several priorities emerged through the firm's engagement with the Gunn community. Students said they preferred earthy, neutral, calming tones; bright colors were perceived as too bold and "pressured," Architarian Design Founder Elaine Uang told the board Tuesday night.

Students also said social spaces and unified community gathering spaces on campus were high priorities. Students also resonated with the natural elements of their campus and the surrounding area, Uang said. (Firm staff even gathered samples of "natural elements" on campus — trees, bark, plants, flowers — and posted photos of them on the project website.)

Staff and parents also said having color-coded buildings to help people find their way is important. Students, parents and staff all said they would like to have murals on campus.

Ultimately, Architarian Design proposed two color schemes — dubbed "Wildflowers" and "Golden State" — and students voted on the options online.

"Wildflowers," which draws from warm, neutral colors (mostly light browns and some pastel colors), won with 73 percent of support compared to 27 percent for "Golden State." The design includes color-coding by building cluster (certain wings will get certain accent colors painted on doors and beams, for example), lighter-colored ceilings (which are "very low and dark right now," Uang said) and walls and accent colors, like Titan red, used primarily in social spaces. Benches and tables in the quad will be painted bright red. The school also plans to bring in a professional muralist at a later date to work with students to paint murals around campus.

Gunn's student board representative, Grace Park, said a small section outside the Student Activities Center repainted in the "Wildflowers" scheme has drawn students' attention. When students walk by, they do a double take and look like they're thinking to themselves, "'Wait, that's not normal,' — and I think it's not normal in a very, very beautiful way," Park said.

She said when the process began, most students knew they wanted a brighter campus, but didn't know what exactly that would look like.

"We weren't sure how you could repaint an entire school to make it still have that same feeling of Gunn and be familiar but somehow a better version of Gunn," she said. "I think this product that they just described to you is really what we wanted and didn't realize we wanted."

Board members hailed the project for not only having the potential to "transform" Gunn physically, but also modeling an inclusive process for seeking student voice — an issue that was at the forefront of emotional conversations at the board and school level in particular during the last school year.

"When we have to do other things when we want to incorporate student voice, I think these are good models," said board Vice President Terry Godfrey.

Board member Ken Dauber said he remembered when the idea to repaint Gunn first came up several years ago.

"It was intended to be a concrete symbol of the care of the community for students at Gunn and for staff at Gunn, and I'm very pleased to see it's gotten to the point that it has," he said. "I think it will play that role."

Funding for the project, which has an estimated cost of $1 million, will come from the district's Planned Maintenance fund. The project will have to come back to the board for an official vote at its next meeting, but staff plan to start the painting project in June after the school year ends.

We need your support now more than ever. Can we count on you?


24 people like this
Posted by CCW
a resident of Greendell/Walnut Grove
on Mar 9, 2016 at 2:21 pm

Most of the buildings at Gunn look pretty boring and tired, so adding some refreshing colors is a great idea. Our kids went to Gunn and I was often wondering why the buildings were so bland. Best wishes for the project. The students and staff will enjoy the result.

11 people like this
Posted by Out of style
a resident of Gunn High School
on Mar 9, 2016 at 4:51 pm

The exterior colors in vogue at this time are not neutral or pale, neither are they bright or colorful, especially not mixed colors.

The latest exterior colors are dark gray with just a touch of one neon color. Or a light olive with an offset of cream. Or a medium gray with black trim. Or a brick color with cream trim. They only acceptable light color would be a light grey or taupe or even bare concrete, with a brick red trim.

19 people like this
Posted by Good
a resident of Barron Park
on Mar 9, 2016 at 5:27 pm

Style/fads are overrated, and grays tend to be depressing. I think this is great and long overdue. I wonder why color and mood were not considered long ago, or during all the renovations. Colors also have a lot to do with alertness, I hope that will be considered in the design. Thanks to all the parents and staff who got this to happen!

18 people like this
Posted by District Teacher
a resident of Midtown
on Mar 9, 2016 at 6:51 pm

Great idea! Gunn is a grim- and rundown-looking campus (most of it, at least). Please think of having signs on buildings. I've been going there for meetings for more than ten years and still get lost. Everything looks the same (drab) and nothing is clearly marked. I'm a grown-up with coping skills; I can only imagine how a kid who might have learning differences might feel. So happy to hear that Gunn is working toward making the campus more welcoming!

15 people like this
Posted by Palo Alto Parent
a resident of Crescent Park
on Mar 9, 2016 at 9:16 pm

This is such a creative way to address the need for both new paint and a need to brighten the mood at Gunn. Kudos to Elaine and her team for reaching out to the Gunn students to find out what they want for their school. This has been a very thoughtful process under the leadership of a creative principal. I am excited to see what the school will look- and feel like- next fall.

3 people like this
Posted by Peter Sullivan
a resident of Los Altos
on Mar 9, 2016 at 9:42 pm

Great idea to "re-brand" the school and give it a renewed look and feel. Since Palo Alto is looking at renaming Jordan and reviewing other school names, please consider re-naming the "Gunn" to coincide with the remodeling/painting.

Anything that doesn't have the connotation of a weapon would be good.

5 people like this
Posted by Julia B.
a resident of Barron Park
on Mar 9, 2016 at 11:01 pm

This is great but what about those students who are color blind? The color blocking of wings will not help their way finding.

12 people like this
Posted by Good
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 10, 2016 at 9:40 am

District Teacher,
You are right, Gunn is grim and rundown looking. So where did all that facilities bond money go? Addison just got a huge donation, because apparently the bond didn't improve the Elementaries much. It gave Gunn that asylum-like building, and the language arts, plus the gym, but between them, those cost about $40 million, less than the new Mitchell Park community center apparently. The bond was $400 million. Why does Gunn only now get a new look? Do your colleagues recognize it as you have? If so, why haven't they spoken out? I'm not trying to put you personally on the spot, but given the reason for the change, couldn't people have spoken out before?

Like this comment
Posted by Watching
a resident of Downtown North
on Mar 10, 2016 at 10:44 am

"Where did the facilities bond money go?"

Looking at the annual reports -

Gunn will have about $75M spent on it - new gym (and old gym remodel), pool, athletic fields; new large two-story classroom building; new one-story languages building; technology upgrades, some A/C. In process new two story central building, including wellness center.

Paly will have about $130M spent on it, including the Peery gift (yes, a lot more than Gunn) - theater, gym, media center, large classroom building, some field work, some repairs. Middle schools $50M - expansion and remodeling. Elementary schools ~$35M - Ohlone, Fairmeadown, Duveneck, plus smart boards & technology.

There's another $60M in elementary reserves. $8.5M buying 525 San Antonio. $2.5M bond issuance costs. Some additional reserves.

11 people like this
Posted by andy
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Mar 10, 2016 at 11:00 am

Hopefully they don't get Shemar Moore to paint murals. I hear they're painting over at least some of James Franco's works at Paly - according to my kids, not a day too soon.

8 people like this
Posted by Robert Smith
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Mar 10, 2016 at 1:08 pm

From wikipedia entry for "Hawthorn Effect":

The Hawthorne effect (also referred to as the observer effect[citation needed]) is a type of reactivity in which individuals modify or improve an aspect of their behavior in response to their awareness of being observed.[1][2] The original research at the Hawthorne Works in Cicero, Illinois, on lighting changes and work structure changes such as working hours and break times were originally interpreted by Elton Mayo and others to mean that paying attention to overall worker needs would improve productivity. Later interpretations such as that done by Landsberger suggested that the novelty of being research subjects and the increased attention from such could lead to temporary increases in workers' productivity. This interpretation was dubbed "the Hawthorne effect".

11 people like this
Posted by Can this get worse?
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 10, 2016 at 3:09 pm

Suicides in 2009-2010 and 2014-2015, and the answer is to paint the walls. Novel idea, worthless, but novel.

10 people like this
Posted by Get Real
a resident of Nixon School
on Mar 10, 2016 at 3:17 pm

Gunn is a Scottish surname. There are also prominent citizens in Palo Alto named Gunn, who may not approve of the name change.

The "techie look" is the modern look, and unfortunately, it eschews anything but the barest accent of color. But it is all the rage with teens and twenty-somethings. It is very minimalist and mechanical in style and color, meaning no-frills, lots of concrete and steel, little or no wood, hard edges, cold colors such as charcoal grey.

Ugly and depressing to us, but it's what the kids want and like. For some reason, the cold, unwelcoming look is here to stay for a while.

7 people like this
Posted by Marc
a resident of Midtown
on Mar 10, 2016 at 7:26 pm

Paint is cheap and not permanent.

If painting the school make people feel better for even a couple of years, go for it. When the next class gets tired of the color scheme, change it. Don't act as if painting the school means that you can't change it.

Also don't analyze it to death.


4 people like this
Posted by Marc don't
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 10, 2016 at 9:24 pm

Paint is indeed cheap, as are other superficial reactions that don't solve the problem. The other possibility is that the new paint will be a waste of time and won't make any significant number of students feel better at all. And don't tell people what to do. Too many don'ts, and now I've added another.

4 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 10, 2016 at 10:49 pm

Interesting idea to paint Gunn. I have always thought that the dull brown color makes it the ugliest school in town. I am pleased to hear about murals of wildflowers, much better than some of the murals I have seen pictures of at Paly.

What hasn't been mentioned though is the cost and whether this painting comes under the heading of routine maintenance or expenditure spending that puts them ahead of other maintenance done at another school.

With the talk about the donation to Addison to suddenly become the best facilitated school in the District, particularly in terms of MP Rooms, any spending at one school out of the equitable spending on others, has to be questioned. As it is, it appears that PIE is about to die and we go back to anyone donating to any school they want and the parity of schools' facilities is about to go down the drain.

5 people like this
Posted by Good
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 12, 2016 at 2:33 pm

"Gunn will have about $75M spent on it - new gym (and old gym remodel), pool, athletic fields; new large two-story classroom building; new one-story languages building; technology upgrades, some A/C. In process new two story central building, including wellness center."

The new gym cost $12M. I thought the pool came from a different pot of money and was done before the other renovations, wasn't it? Correct me if I'm wrong. The new large two-story classroom building was about $20million, which could have been a alot cheaper even by admission of their architect, but even so. The language building was $8 million. That makes $40 million, and not a bargain if you compare what was done at Mitchell Park community center for the same amount of money. Where did the other $35 million go? The athletic fields did not cost $35 million, and they could have been fully paid for by just the savings in putting up the $20 million two-story building if the district had paid attention to any state-recommended school construction cost savings. If they are spending $35 million on a new two-story building, that's just beyond ridiculous, and could pay for two elementaries to be upgraded and the space at Gunn if planned more carefully.

As for Paly - think about projects that cost $130million. The entire campus should be entirely new.

Like this comment
Posted by What a waste!
a resident of Midtown
on Mar 12, 2016 at 11:38 pm

This stinks of waste. I have been on the Gunn campus many times and find it quite nice. With the buildings and grounds they have it strikes me almost like a small college. When I see it it makes me quite envious compared to my own high school experience (a dingy 4 story, all indoor school on the east coast). What fragile and entitled children are we raising if they have to involved in picking the paint color of their school? I understand the suicide situation but cant imagine whether the school is painted a cheery color or not would have much of an effect on students' mental health. Surely the $1M to be spent on this could be better spent on something like better counseling services.

3 people like this
Posted by Good
a resident of Barron Park
on Mar 13, 2016 at 1:08 am

Color actually does have a significant impact on mood. The only thing I find worrisome is that there didn't seem to be guidnce from the professionals about that. calming colors can actually hurt alertness.

That said, you are right if you mean colors aren't going to change nental illness or the impact of too much stress. I personally went to a way less rich school yet still find much of it dilapidated, run down, tired, and musty.

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