Michael Driver, Folio Art

Few buildings are as etched into our subconscious and our collective cultural memories as schools. They are a key backdrop in our children’s early years and our own adolescent recollections, as well as neighborhood pillars, and they offer designers the chance to both define a community and impact numerous students. A growing number of architects believe that meeting this design challenge by integrating schools more fully into city life can spur a lasting, positive change in how students learn.

“I bet you could tell me exactly what your high school looked and felt like,” says AJ Pires, president of Brooklyn, N.Y.–based Alloy Development, which is currently at work designing a multi-block project partially anchored by two schools. “There’s a wonderful moment when you realize you’re inside a place that’s well-designed and required a lot of thought that calls you to be aspirational. That’s the perfect message to be sending in the school environment: ‘You should be thinking as grandly as you can."

For Pires and others, that vision incorporates space for learning within the larger community, whether it’s including schools as part of a ground-up high-rise, finding space for a high school in a massive adaptive reuse project, or, like Pires and his firm, designing a new elementary school and new facility for the Khalil Gibran International Academy high school as part of a massive mixed-use development in downtown Brooklyn.

“If you put students in a creative space, it enhances their capabilities,” says Amanda Whitaker, AIA, architect with ANF Architects, a Memphis, Tenn.–based firm that designed a high school within Crosstown Concourse, a sprawling adaptive reuse project that turned an abandoned, 1.5 million-square-foot Sears distribution center into a vertical village. “The fact that it doesn’t scream high school is why students love it,” she says. “Put them in a box, they’ll think inside a box.”

Incorporating schools within larger mixed-use projects isn’t unheard of, but the practice is becoming increasingly popular—especially for new charter schools—as a way to incorporate real-world learning within the school environment. The XQ Institute, an educational initiative led by Laurene Powell Jobs, has promoted this idea with multimillion-dollar grants for schools across the nation, including the one at Crosstown. What better way to give students access to mentors than to have them learn alongside offices, or provide access to culture and technology than by locating their classroom within walking distance of museums, theaters, and tech hubs?

While fitting schools in atypical environments means each project is unique, they all share similar design challenges: incorporating natural light into the comparatively sprawling floor plates of mixed-use buildings, as well as including large shared spaces such as gyms and cafeterias; keeping neighboring floors and tenants from getting drowned out by the noise of students; and maintaining separation to keep students and schools safe and secure. But these projects also offer incredible possibilities. Theresa Genovese, AIA, is a principal at New York–based CetraRuddy, which designed Corporate Commons Three, an under-construction mixed-use commercial high-rise in Staten Island, N.Y. The project, which features three schools, is slated to be completed later this year. She says the arrangement allows schools to focus on the business of education, not owning and operating buildings.

“Given current zoning, adding a community facility to a larger project can be beneficial,” Genovese says. “Developers may even get more floors or floor space; there can definitely be a financial incentive.”

These new models have come along just as so many of our preconceived notions of school design and architecture are being destabilized and reconsidered amid the pandemic.

“COVID-19 has exposed the shortcomings of the education system, and how ossified it has become,” says Larry Kearns, FAIA, an architect with Chicago’s Wheeler Kearns Architects who specializes in educational projects. “COVID-19 has made it possible to rethink templates that were hardly ever questioned.”

The Crosstown project in Memphis also reimagines those templates, exemplifying the power of placing a school within a larger commercial development and making it both an anchor and a satellite for other institutions. When ANF Architects was conceptualizing what would become Crosstown High School, which opened for the 2018–2019 school year and will eventually hold 500 students, the process was ground-up, Whitaker says.

Built around arts, education, and health, the larger Crosstown Concourse, a cavernous former warehouse filled with businesses and nonprofits, offered many synergies to the ANF team. Students share pool and gym facilities with the YMCA, and contemporary arts center Crosstown Arts provides theater space for school performances and clubs, which translate to significant savings in space and construction costs. But the reality of the confined space—the school takes up two-and-a-half floors within a tower on the structure’s east end—meant fitting traditional classrooms within 20-by-20-foot grids and tight floor plates wasn’t an option.

ANF turned the atypical situation into an advantage. Whitaker and her colleagues used a basecamp model, linking a series of flexible, dynamic, adaptable spaces—including small meeting spaces and home room hubs—across all three floors, including central rooms that could be joined by opening a garage door. The result is a classroom typology mixed with the shared space aesthetics of a tech office. A series of floor-to-ceiling windows that look out over the atrium offer natural light and the ability to “borrow” light for landlocked rooms. The concrete walls and floors of the building made it challenging to integrate modern infrastructure such as HVAC, plumbing, and electrical within the skeleton of a ‘20s-era warehouse, so ANF used lots of acoustic sprays and vibrantly colored acoustic tiles to soak up the noise (“people in other offices say we’re the quietest part of the concourse,” Whitaker jokes).

“Everything was deliberately designed to be flexible and open, so students could see further out into the community itself,” she says. “We nixed ideas like locker-lined corridors.”

Crosstown High was meant to be diverse by design: The larger Crosstown vision includes a commitment to revitalizing the disinvested neighborhood surrounding the complex, and the high school plays a key part. A public charter school that accepts students via a lottery, and aims to “reflect the unique diversity of Memphis as a whole,” according to its mission statement, Crosstown gives students numerous networking and internship opportunities within the larger complex.

Plans for the 330,000-square-foot Corporate Commons Three in Staten Island, an eight-story office complex, suggest the same kinds of neighborhood synergies can be achieved with ground-up designs. According to CetraRuddy’s Genovese, the developer, Nicotra Group, looked for ways to give back, and saw the incorporation of the three schools—John W. Lavelle Preparatory Charter School (grades K–5), Nicotra Early College Charter (grades 8–12), and New Ventures Charter School (grades 10–12)—in the middle of the building’s stacking plan as a unique opportunity.

Students will be able to learn and work on a rooftop farm—which is set to be run by urban agriculture startup Brooklyn Grange—and grow lettuce, tomatoes, eggplant, zucchini, cucumbers, and more. Restaurants and offices will offer additional internship opportunities, adding a suite of vocational learning opportunities to Staten Island students.

Architects faced layout challenges not typically part of a commercial development: Shared social spaces, such as gyms and the cafeteria, were placed on the middle school floor avoid annoying neighbors with the sound of active students; a separate entrance and elevator system were installed outside the interior core stairs to keep students and adults moving. Balancing the large floor plates, which are ideal for corporate clients, with the need for daylighting classrooms was tricky.

But perhaps the most challenging aspect was cost: Corporate clients simply have more oney. To compensate while still creating a quality learning environment, CetraRuddy focused on long-term savings, including a green roof, passive solar, and fixtures that cut down on water usage, to save the schools from high utility bills.

Schools can be a difficult puzzle piece to place within large-scale projects, but the benefits of having different tenants aren’t just for the students. As Alloy’s Pires says, schools aren’t just part of the blueprint. They’re central pillars of what Alloy hopes becomes a true community space: the 80 Flatbush project, which aims to create Brooklyn’s most sustainable block, with passive house construction and other sustainable design elements.

The school complex, which is set to open by fall 2023 with a new K–5 elementary school and new facilities for the Khalil Gibran International Academy, New York’s first English-Arabic-language high school, was deliberately set in the middle of the block. Instead of placing the school in the podiums of residential or commercial buildings, site planners wanted to set the school apart to give it a true sense of civic importance (New York–based Architecture Research Office will be designing the school separate from Alloy’s larger vision of the block, so it’s unique).

Pires says these mixed-use educational projects allow for more progressive ideas to filter up into school design. The sustainable focus of 80 Flatbush, for example, will provide the New York City School Construction Authority, one of the city’s most prolific builders, with a test case for passive house techniques. The high school’s theater has been oriented to be at grade, facing out to the street.

Successfully integrating schools into mixed-use urban developments can open many additional doors, Kearns says. Zoning changes, creative design, and placemaking could transform darkened store fronts into educational centers, placing schools amid vibrant, more accessible commercial corridors, instead of tucked away into residential neighborhoods. Ideally, that means “we can design school uncoupled from neighborhoods, and the many ways that your ZIP code defines your opportunity,” he says.

Ultimately, weaving schools more closely into the urban fabric only reinforces the attraction of cities, Whitaker says, and the power of sharing space and institutions. “Design that’s more inclusive yields a richer and more plural place,” she says. “Schools are part of placemaking, and how people connect with one another. This doesn’t happen outside a cellphone store.”