The new Perkins & Will-designed STEM building at Florida’s Ransom Everglades School (lower right) is a space designed for adaptability.
Robin Hill The new Perkins & Will-designed STEM building at Florida’s Ransom Everglades School (lower right) is a space designed for adaptability.

When Pat Bosch, principal and design director for the Miami office of Perkins & Will, began thinking about school design post-pandemic, her thoughts didn’t drift to high-tech learning spaces or indoor-outdoor playgrounds for learning. She went back to the basics: the one-room schoolhouse of the frontier.

“It’s a simple building that needs to do a lot of things,” Bosch says about the traditional structure, which was an inspiration for a new innovation center and STEM building her team designed for the Ransom Everglades School, an elite Miami prep school, that opened in September 2020. “It was a condenser, adaptable and flexible, a little Inspector Gadget–type space. Everything happened there. That’s where we’re all going, back to simplification. We don’t need to overdesign.”

Calamity can produce clarity, and in the case of COVID, architects and designers are increasingly seeing how the scramble to alter or improvise classrooms that functioned during a pandemic—via distancing, temporary barriers, mobile furniture, and air filtration—can turn object lessons into an opportunity for rethinking design.

The look and layout of American schools have always been about a lot more than architecture; their aesthetics are a reflection of politics, power, equity, and our prognostications about the future of the workplace. This pandemic moment may have produced a unique inflection point for school design, one that might focus more on wellness, student choice, and multidisciplinary learning, creating classroom environments as customizable as a set of blocks or Legos.

“The architecture of schools traditionally doesn’t really help you learn,” said Rosan Bosch (no relation to Pat Bosch), founder of an eponymous Danish design studio known for progressive educational projects. Her fluid design for the Vittra School Telefonplan in Stockholm, which opened in 2011, led to sensationalist headlines about classroom-free schools.

“An old-fashioned type of school, with a corridor and a room where you sit still, where you as a student aren’t physically moving very much, doesn’t give you many options to become engaged,” she says. “A more flexible, open environment allows you to learn in a better way. Schools should be physical frameworks to allow us to learn in the best way.”

But flexibility, despite its definitional promise of pliability and impermanence, can mean different things to different administrators and architects. The freedom of COVID-era temporary school design solutions—from a proposal from Skidmore, Owings and Merrill for pop-up, high-pitched, easily sanitized portable classrooms with plug-in air purification, to architect Valentino Gareri’s modular treehouse, featuring interlocking pavilions of cross-laminated timber that form a figure eight—suggest a step up from the traditionally ad-hoc modular classrooms, as well as wildly varying degrees of activity and a connection to nature. But as emergency measures, like tent classrooms designed by U.K. studio Curl la Tourelle Head, make way for full-fledged new school concepts and construction premised on more openness and experimentation, there’s serious debate around exactly what it even means to foster creativity.

“I’m not trying to create an architecture that can create the model citizen of the future. I don’t even think it’s possible,” says Rosan Bosch. Her recent post-COVID design concept for a new building at Markham College, a private school in Lima, Peru, designed with the firm IDOM, hews closer to the tree house and open-air vision, with flexible pods and learning areas sheathed in wood, a half-open corridor called the Río Hablador, or Talking River, and even caves carved into the walls for students seeking respite. “We’re trying to create the physical framework that allows for development, that gives the students the tools to learn how to learn, and motivates them, giving them positive feelings about learning and bettering themselves.”

A learning lab characteristic of the open design of the STEM building at Ransom Everglades School.
Perkins & Will A learning lab characteristic of the open design of the STEM building at Ransom Everglades School.

Students don’t dream of coming to school every day and effectively sitting in a cubicle. But over the last century, many people involved in modern school design kept the workplace at the forefront of their thinking. In the early part of the 20th century, philosophies of industrialization and Taylorism informed the efficiency-focused operations of classic brick schoolhouses we think about today, fueled by the education philosophies of progressives like William Wirt, superintendent of schools in Gary, Ind.

In the later half of the century, as technology became more of a focus, new generations of architects would bring both International Style design and a focus on open plans to mid-century schools. As schools have grown in size and assumed more social responsibility in recent decades, the moment is ripe for a wholesale rethinking of where our children learn—a reality accelerated by the school-choice and charter-school movements. The one-room schoolhouse has become crowded and infinitely more complex.

Now, the vision of a modern workplace completely transformed and set adrift by the rapid pace of technology has pushed designers who, already focused on elevating collaboration and soft skills, are using the flexibility mandate that’s come from COVID as a means to transform homerooms into tech hubs. Ransom Everglades exemplifies this philosophy—promoted by education “disruptors” like the XQ Institute—of resiliency, flexibility, and real world experience as a glide path to student success, one as smooth as the concrete floors of coworking spaces and corporate innovation hubs. Administrators at Ransom Everglades already wanted to move into a more multidisciplinary vision of 21st century learning, so Pat Bosch’s office used lessons learned during its design of cosmetics company L’Oreal’s new Rio de Janeiro Innovation Center, another waterfront space tilted with Niemeyer-esque curves, for the school’s STEM center.

“They chose us because we were the perfect storm; we know corporate, workplace, higher ed, and healthcare,” says Bosch. “The way we talk about next-gen is really about an intersection of many elements. We need to think that way, not just [about] how students are thinking, but [about] how buildings behave.”

The layout of the innovation hub was steered in large part by resiliency, considering the area’s increasing extreme weather and climate change vulnerabilities. Set on the bayfront campus with its glass doors opening onto a lush garden, the building is contextual, opening to the north to decrease solar gain, and built to collect rainwater and harvest solar power with PV panels. It’s constructed with a chilled beam cooling system that minimizes ductwork, meaning less particle, allergen, and pollutant accumulation. But the layout inside is plug-and-play and project-based, an evolution of the learning platform, according to Bosch, filled with movable glass partitions and desks on wheels. Even lab gear, like fume hoods, is made to be reconfigurable, the better to reposition everything to approach a lesson or problem in a different way. The environment to think and create was deliberately modeled on what students will see outside of school, to inspire the kind of creative thinking, collaboration, and collusions that you’d hear about in a design thinking seminar.

“Even the most static of rooms, a lab, can completely shift and move to take different forms due to the problem at hand,” Bosch says. “It’s as simple as that; critical thinking and creativity need to come into the education system.”

COVID underscored the value of this approach, she says. Education moved outside when the pandemic hit. Flexible workspaces and collaborative spaces evolved with social distancing and our understanding of the virus. The air exchange and mechanical systems flushed fresh air into the building.

For Rosan Bosch, the Markham project in Peru took two different sources of inspiration: the scenes of schools closing during the pandemic, as well as the ability to get drawn into one’s own imagination. Her classroom CV, including a series of Vittra schools for elementary-age students, has always focused on a self-awareness of how to learn. Markham, filled with clusters of classrooms and more interactive common space, attempts to offer a more agile place to learn.

“Spaces are the third teacher,” she says. “The right learning landscape allows you to feel how you learn, and empowers students to act on that.”

Markham exhibits many of the hallmarks of the Rosan Bosch approach: curved spaces and plenty of indoor-outdoor interaction; small shocks of color (in this case, partially a response to the sensory deprivation of the sameness of so many people’s pandemic environments), and lots of flexible structures. The design was made to be experimental; one of the biggest problems inherent in traditional school design is assigning spaces a role, leading to predefined problem solving. Rosan Bosch compares school architecture to that of a prison in terms of its rote nature, but also because of its consequences on behavior and learning. Breaking free from those constraints requires developing a space that allows for rapid and consistent change.

“During COVID, everybody had to be agile and creative in a short period, and we all saw schools were flexible and had a much easier transition to this digital adoption,” she says. “Everybody had this experience. Parents saw that the work was changing.”

Preparation for the future has always been part of a school’s guiding mission, and COVID has given designers a reminder of how important it is for physical space itself to be resilient and responsive to emergencies. What remains to be seen is how a focus on flexibility impacts the way spaces become part of a child’s everyday school experience, and how it will ultimately impact a curriculum’s effectiveness.

“Children get more and more demotivated by school, and they can’t see the relevance of what they’re doing,” says Rosan Bosch. “We’re trying to empower students with this learning landscape.”