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The best new schools don't look like schools at all

By Tom O'Donahoo on 6 October 2016InnovationCultureUKstaffroomNSWstaffroom

This year, the city of Baltimore opened Henderson-Hopkins, its first new school in 30 years. This three decade hiatus presented the city with fairly rare opportunity to reconsider how a school's physical space could better tackle the challenges of modern learning.

Like many of the other 11 schools that won Education Facility Design Awards from the AIA this year, Henderson-Hopkins took on a radical new construction philosophy:

Use architecture to keep schools physically and metaphorically open.

Henderson-Hopkins SchoolHenderson-Hopkins School [Photo: Albert Vecerka Esto]

In many ways this new philosophy flies in the face of centuries of school designs that stood apart from their neighbourhoods as beacons of tradition, heritage and institutional power. Not that this was a horrible thing, as for hundreds of years their closed cultures and unique traditions helped to define the status of the rising middle and upper classes. Although the American School system is in many ways different from our own, they are however facing the same macroeconomic shifts. In today's environment of increasing meritocracy, global competitiveness in university admissions and the soaring value of innovation, merely going to a good school is no longer any guarantee of economic security.

This new breed of schools is a bold signal that administrators are willing to tackle these challenges head on, investing in developing increasingly collaborative, creative, technology friendly and engaged communities. In many ways this movement borrows lessons from today's technology companies who overtook the institutions of old by helping to create happier, more creative and more productive employees. This happy bunch would ultimately go on produce better products and services.

For these schools the physical space sets the stage for modern learning, but the truth is that bricks and mortar as simply the most visible manifestation of the deeper cultural shift. From the rapid adoption of flipped learning, team teaching and collaboration with industry and the community, there are many fronts on which schools are innovating. As a silver lining - the most impactful changes won't even require you to break out the sledgehammer.

As a bit of inspiration we thought we'd share five other schools that received AIA honours this year for design excellence.

1. Seton Hill Arts Centre in Greensburg, Pennsylvania

[Photo: Jonathan Hillyer]

Located about 60 miles southwest of Pittsburgh, the new arts centre at Seton Hill University takes its cues from the Rust Belt's industrial architecture. Design Lab Architects conceived of the 50,000-square-foot space as a "factory for the arts." With floor-to-ceiling windows on the ground floor, the structure is open to the street and sidewalk. A courtyard in the centre of the building encourages students to work outside. But what's most telling about the structure is perhaps its location in downtown Greensburg, rather than within Seton Hill's main campus; signalling that the art centre is a part of the city, not an ivory tower.

2. Indian Springs School near Birmingham, Alabama

[Photo: Casey Dunn]

For the Indian Springs School, a rural boarding school in Alabama, Lake Flato Architects made the most of the 350 acres of woodland that surround the campus. Deep eaves extend from the school's gabled roofs to offer protected outdoor seating, riffing on the archetypal southern porch. Skylights and windows let students see out into the surrounding environment and footbridges traverse swales (landscape design features meant to naturally filter rainwater).

3. Dwight-Englewood Stem Centre in Englewood, New Jersey

[Photo: Garrett Rowland]

With an emphasis on science and technology, it makes sense that the Dwight-Englewood STEM centre by Gensler is designed to be open: serendipitous encounters and spontaneous conversations are supposed to be a linchpin of innovative thinking. The school almost resembles a tech office thanks to its indoor stadium seating, co-working areas in the heart of the building, whiteboards lining the hallways and flexible classrooms.

4. Kennedy Child Study Centre in New York City

[Photo: Mikiko Kikuyama]

In transforming a 1930s East Harlem warehouse into a school, Pell Overton Architects had to contend with two structural challenges: low ceilings and virtually no natural light indoors. Their solution? Cut lighting bays into the ceiling and incorporate large windows that look out into the neighbourhood.

5. Mundo Verde Bilingual Charter School, Washington, D.C.

[Photo: Anice Hoachlander]

Sustainability is part of the core curriculum at Mundo Verde, but for children at the school the lesson doesn't end in the classroom. Outside, garden classrooms are planted with native species and vegetables that are used in the cafeteria's lunch offerings. To create the campus, Studio 27 Architecture renovated a 40,000-square-foot 1920s school building and constructed a new 10,000-square-foot annex whose glass walls open to a courtyard play area, forming an indoor-outdoor room.

Story originally published on 09.08.16 by Diana Budds of FastCoDesign

[All Photos: courtesy AIA]

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