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Rising expectations: The rise of vertical schools

Vertical education. It’s a fact, but is it also a fad? Paul McGillick looks at how education is reaching for the skies.

  • Adelaide Botanic High School by DesignInc, Cox Architecture, AECOM and TCL. Photo by Sam Noonan.



BY

July 12th, 2019


I did my first degree at the University of Western Australia where we spent much of our time strolling through the gardens or lolling on the river bank. Later I did something similar at the University of Sydney. But this Oxbridge model was not, even then, universal. Think University of London, New York University or closer to home, UTS Sydney and RMIT Melbourne. These urban campuses are multi-level, indeed high-rise, and treasure any open space they can get, especially at ground level. Being urban they form part of the city fabric and reflect the life and forms of the city.

But right now we are witnessing a more focused agenda – from pre-school through high school to tertiary level – generating educational facilities which go up rather than spread out at ground level.

What’s intriguing is why. Is it just a fad or is it to do with that persistent urban problem: restricted useable space? Or is it a response to changing pedagogy – a shift towards a new teaching/learning methodology, a completely fresh understanding of the educational experience?

Let me focus on the pre-tertiary sector because this where the vertical educational phenomenon is most noticeable.

There have always been multi-level school buildings. These were invariably two-three storeys high and surrounded by generous playground space. Is it possible that, despite a flirtation with high-rise, this will be as high as it gets? Will it be simply a reinterpretation of the old model to accommodate new approaches to teaching and learning?

Maybe. But right now we are seeing some genuinely high-rise buildings whose recreational amenities, instead of being spread out at the foot of the building are located within the building itself or on the rooftop. The precedent is the ‘brutalist’ St Andrew’s Cathedral School in Sydney next to the Town Hall, designed by Noel Bell and Herbert F. Hely in 1976. Later Sydney examples are International Grammar in Ultimo and Macquarie Grammar.

Arthur Phillip High Scool Parramatta by Grimshaw Architects and BVN.

A current example is the Arthur Phillip High School Parramatta and Parramatta Public School (designed by Grimshaw Architects and BVN) located right in the heart of the booming Parramatta CBD and close by the University of Western Sydney Parramatta Campus, itself occupying ten floors of a 14-storey building adjacent to the railway station. There are two towers forming the new school, the high school being 17 storeys high and the public school four storeys, along with a restored heritage building. Scheduled to open for the 2019 school year, the project is running almost a year behind due to unforeseen problems, including a serious fire in the heritage building.

In the pipeline in NSW are no less than five high-rise schools, including the 14-storey Sydney City High (fjmt) in inner suburban Surry Hills and the 12-storey Newcastle West End school which features a different school year on each level, beginning with kindergarten on the ground floor and ending with Year 12 at the top.

In Melbourne, the Haileybury City Campus (Darren Carnell Architects) is a refurbished 10-storey former call centre featuring two floors of art facilities, a drama studio, sports hall, science labs and incorporating 15-square metres of outdoor spaces and gardens for 800 students from early learning to year 12.

Adelaide Botanic School by DesignInc, Cox Architecture, AECOM and TCL. Photo by Sam Noonan.

Adelaide Botanic School by DesignInc, Cox Architecture, AECOM and TCL. Photo by Sam Noonan.

In Adelaide, the newly open Botanic High School in the CBD near the Botanic Gardens (Cox Architecture, DesignInc, AECOM and TCL) is a highly sustainable complex comprising a refurbished existing building and a six-storey new building including library, food technology kitchens, indoor gym and a rooftop terrace.

Adelaide Botanic High School by DesignInc, Cox Architecture, AECOM and TCL. Photo by Sam Noonan.

Adelaide Botanic High School by DesignInc, Cox Architecture, AECOM and TCL. Photo by Sam Noonan.

But high-rise education is not the same as vertical education. Already reservations have emerged about high-rise. The NSW Minister for Education, Rob Stokes, recently (in the light of the Parramatta problems) said that high-rise was no longer “the preferred option” because it was “complicated to build, less adaptable to students’ changing needs and expensive to operate”. And he could have mentioned the crush in the lifts during lesson changeovers.

Adelaide Botanic High School by DesignInc, Cox Architecture, AECOM and TCL. Photo by Sam Noonan.

Stokes doesn’t rule out future high-rise, but he says it would only be in dense urban settings. But even in these circumstances, there might be concerns. As Dr Tony Matthews pointed out at the School Infrastructure Summit in 2018, there are genuine concerns about the health and well-being of children growing up in what he calls “urban canyons”. Astro-turfed rooftops in the middle of the city don’t, in his opinion, substitute for running free in the fresh air of natural open spaces.

If we look at what is being termed vertical education, what we find is that heights tend to remain at a modest maximum of four storeys. Certainly, these new schools are responding to restricted available space, but they are also responding to changing attitudes towards education.

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“There are genuine concerns about the health and well-being of children growing up in what he calls ‘urban canyons’.”
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You might think that connection, collaboration and interaction only define the new workplace. But these are also the signifiers of a new educational culture. Hayball’s six-storey South Melbourne Primary School boasts “learning neighbourhoods” rather than classrooms while their new Richmond High School in Melbourne offers a four-storey academic facility next door to a sports precinct at ground level.

South Melbourne Primary School by Hayball. Photo by Dianna Snape.

South Melbourne Primary School by Hayball. Photo by Dianna Snape.

Here, a key idea is to share amenities as much as possible with the broader community – a sense of community engagement shared by the five-storey St Patrick’s Cathedral College due to open in 2020 right in the heart of the Parramatta CBD next to the Cathedral itself. The Prahran High School in Melbourne (Gray Puksand) is four storeys high and features a glass and perforated screen façade, a dynamic, light-filled atrium with a ‘town hall’, a rooftop play area and a variety of teaching/learning settings.

Some of these new schools combine early learning with high school, although again there is nothing especially novel in this apart from perhaps a greater physical integration of all levels of schooling.

Skyplay by Tom Godden Architects and Matthew Crawford Architects. Photo by Peter Bennetts.

But individual early learning facilities are also tending upwards. Take, for example, Skyplay in North Perth (designed by Godden Projects and Matthew Crawford Architects). This consists of a refurbished heritage-listed police station and a three-storey addition. It is a series of skygardens interconnected with a treetop skybridge. “Vertical interconnectivity between levels,” say the architects, “allows children of all age groups to interact and develop learning outcomes in a social, relaxed atmosphere.”

Skyplay by Tom Godden Architects and Matthew Crawford Architects. Photo by Peter Bennetts.

The scale of these three-four storey vertical schools supports new approaches to the educational setting, one which seeks a balance between teaching and learning and a holistic approach to the educational experience. Let’s just hope Australia’s languishing educational outcomes rise to match the buildings.

This article extends ideas explored in the current issue of Indesign magazine – the ‘Knowledge Economy’ issue.

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