Our cities are swelling.
The populations of Australian cities are growing so fast that experts predict many will join the ranks of the world’s mega cities in just a few short decades. This burgeoning population is putting mounting pressure on existing infrastructure, most notably the nation’s inner-city schools.
As city centre land becomes increasingly expensive and sought after, cities and education providers have no choice but to look to the skies. Just like office buildings and residential developments, our schools also need to grow to greater heights to accommodate this increasing density. Indeed, in the future we may well grow up in residential towers, be educated in vertical schools and go on to work in a high-rise office tower, all within close proximity of each other.
State Governments are taking this idea very seriously and there have been announcements of several new, high-profile vertical school projects in Australia in recent months, with many more promised to follow.
The Victorian Government recently announced its first ever, $40million vertical school, to be built in the ‘Fishermans Bend’ Urban Renewal Area, just south of Melbourne CBD. The five storey building, designed by Melbourne Architects Hayball, will house 525 students and is scheduled to open in 2018.
The unique design of the building is intended to demonstrate how liveability in high-density urban areas can be maintained, while alleviating enrolment pressures on inner city schools already close to breaking point.
Architects Hayball see this building as the embodiment of a new model for both school and community. Aside from teaching spaces, the building also includes facilities shared with the local community, including a maternal child health centre, multi-purpose community rooms and a gym.
“The Ferrars Street primary school will incorporate 21st century learning spaces for students to learn and grow in an urban environment, offering elements evident in “typical” schools such as active play spaces and pick-up/drop-off zones, but in a vertical setting,” said Richard Leonard of Hayball Architects
The design includes an early learning centre on the roof and students will study outdoors and grow vegetables on seven spacious balcony areas. Even the staircases in the building have been designed to work as mini theatre spaces, allowing students to perform and share their work.
Meanwhile, the New South Wales government has committed to build four new high-rise public schools in and around Sydney. The first of which was the subject of an international design competition, won jointly by Grimshaw Architects and BVN.
This new 17 storey building will actually contain two schools, the Arthur Phillip High School & Parramatta Public School, jointly catering for 2000 secondary and 1000 primary school students, and is expected to open in 2019.
NSW Minister for Education Adrian Piccoli said, “By building a high rise school we’ve been able to significantly increase the size of the playground as well as cater for more students at Arthur Phillip High School.”
Designed around a new pedagogical model, known as the Schools-within-Schools (SWIS), each school will be divided into smaller, more personalised ‘home bases’, comprising students across all age groups and backgrounds.
The taller Arthur Phillip High School is conceived as a ‘kit of parts’ that is flexible and reconfigurable, and is organised into two storey stacked volumes housing six ‘home bases’ of up to 330 students each. Outdoor learning terraces and semi-outdoor vertical circulation elements are also included, intended to encourage interaction between ‘home bases’.
Parramatta Public School will occupy a lower, adjacent building with 280 students in each ‘home base’, spread over four stories. This curvilinear building also surrounds an outdoors learning area and playground.
Over in Western Australia, it is a slightly different story. St. Georges Anglican Grammar School has moved from the leafy campus at Murdoch University to a former office building in one of the busiest streets in Perth’s southern suburbs.
This school is housed in a refurbished five -storey building (Perth has Australia’s highest office vacancy rate), comprising a rooftop playground, indoor cafeteria and a basement performing arts space. The classrooms are linked only by a fire escape and represent a much lower budget alternative to the vertical school typology.
Despite the lack of cutting edge design, Principal Rensché Diggeden explains how the school makes the most of its central location:
“Our photography class is doing its tourism posters for Perth and they are out in the city taking photographs. Our year 12 students this term have had all of their art lessons in the Art Gallery of WA… and St Georges Cathedral, and we use that for all of our chapel services.”
The concept of vertical schools is a new one for Australia but it is pretty mainstream and has proven highly effective in other parts of the world, such as New York and Singapore.
In Manhattan, the 76 storey Beekman Tower by Frank Gehry (2011) contains a five storey school within its lowest levels. The school houses 600 students from early learning through to 8th Grade, including a 460sqm outdoor play space. The building is topped by apartments, a hospital and public plazas.
Similarly, The Canadian International School of Hong Kong is a 14 storey school for over 1800 students representing more than 40 nationalities. The building, designed by Canadian Architect Norman Grey-Noble, was built in several stages with the first 9 floors completed in 1999, with five more floors added in 2002. There is a swimming pool located on the first floor level and outdoor playgrounds on the 3rd and 6th floors.
Whatever your opinion, the economic logic of vertical schools is inescapable, particularly in these changing times. While high-rise learning will continue to have its critics, notably concerning the opportunity for exercise and exposure to outdoors, these projects demonstrate how intelligent, sensitive, architectural design can inform the schools of the future.
Vertical schools not only offer a solution to the increasing enrolment pressures and the necessities of building on smaller sites, but are also vital in maintaining connections between a city’s educational, cultural and commercial activities.
Words: Mark Gregory