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Design Takes the Lead for Inner City Schools

Gleaming city landscapes are familiar hallmarks of modern lifestyle. Globally, more than half of the world’s population now live in urban areas,* with Australia’s urban population ticking over 21 million people in 2015.** Among the challenges for sustainable city living is the question of education: with dense and booming populations, how can cities retain access to high quality education for growing numbers of children?

Innovative cities across the world are meeting the challenge with revolutionary partnerships between design and education, delivering ‘vertical schools’ that make the most of city space by expanding upwards rather than outwards. Although space pressures and lower-than-usual access to outdoor space initially present as challenges, creative architects have met the complexity with progressive design that is reshaping education.


Architecture firm BDP led the way in 2002 with Hampden Gurney Primary School in London. Losing outdoor areas to residential development, BDP built a series of covered, open air play decks on each level of the 6-storey school. Separated from teaching areas by bridges across a central light well and protected by glass screens, the play decks provide the same total floor area as a traditional playground, without expending a swathe of premium Inner-London land. Additionally, the play decks create an increased measure of safety for the school’s students. Whereas teachers were once left to supervise an immense play area populated with students of all ages, the self-contained spaces provide separate zones for differing age groups, each within more manageable supervision areas.


Where Hampden Gurney creates strategic separation, Ørestad High School in Copenhagen uses design to bring the student body together. A simple cube from the exterior, the 3XN-designed building uses boomerang shaped floor plans to remove the borders between classrooms. Each of four floor plans is rotated, creating a central atrium that removes separation between levels and instead allows learning spaces to overlap. Linked by a wide spiral staircase in the atrium, the result is a flexible and open space that facilitates interconnectivity; a physical expression of the school ethos of interdisciplinary education. Atrium classrooms are open plan, and futuristic auditorium pods are topped by carpeted terraces for student seating, encouraging students to work individually or in groups as needed. Sophisticated interiors make strategic use of angular design and surface materials to dampen peripheral sound while amplifying the voices of teachers.

Remarkable for its progressiveness, the design innovation at Ørestad found its origins in education, at a time when changes to Danish school curriculum promoted integrated, project-based learning. The integral role of design in facilitating the country’s educational goals points to the capacity for school design not just to counter city density, but to take an active lead in educational change.


In the island-city of Singapore, the challenges for schools go beyond the growing population and finite space to include the issue of year-round tropical weather. High temperatures, high humidity and high rainfall are natural opponents to conventional sprawling school design, so vertical schools stand out for the capacity for covered, breezy outdoor spaces within space-efficient layouts. At the School of the Arts Singapore (SOTA), designed by architecture firm WOHA, two stacked structures employ wind-directing design to create breezeways for classrooms that surround an airy six storey void. The buildings are perforated to capture natural light and ventilation throughout floorplans that are at most one classroom wide, while living greenery on external facades cut glare and dust, absorb traffic noise, and keep the interiors cool.

WOHA’s cost-effective design approach relies on harnessing environmental factors to deliver high performance specifications within an economical government budget. Now an internationally awarded institution, SOTA proves that modern schools, with the help of inventive design, can provide exemplary learning environments at low public cost.


With Melbourne now joining its international peers and diversifying into vertical schooling, the city will reap the benefits of smart, challenge-driven design solutions. Hayball’s award-winning designs for South Melbourne Primary School (due 2018) include double-use stairs designed to serve as mini theatre spaces, while Gray Puksand will deliver a rooftop garden, running track, terrace balconies and cascading bleachers at Prahran High School (2019). Sydney, too, will see the co-located Arthur Phillip High School and Paramatta Public School (2019) extend learning spaces past the classroom and into the outdoors, with designs by Grimshaw Architects and BVN.


As city living becomes more popular, vertical schools represent a new frontier in education and lifestyle. South Melbourne Primary School – like Ørestad and SOTA – will contain public facilities alongside the school, encouraging renewed connectivity between school and community. What’s more, local city schools will remove children from long commutes and instead allow walkability to schools that are embedded among dynamic cultural and commercial centres.

With progressive architecture that goes far beyond addressing spatial challenges, there is a bright future for the powerful partnership between design and education.


Image of Hampden Gurney Primary School via
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