The Best New Schools Don’t Look Like Schools At All

It’s all about using open architecture to nurture young minds.

This year, the city of Baltimore opened Henderson-Hopkins, its first school in 30 years.


Designed by the architecture firm Rogers Partners, the campus is modeled after the neighborhood beyond its gates. Rust-toned classrooms clad in Cor-ten steel resemble brick row houses and are organized like city blocks with stoops, circulation paths, and open space interspersed between them. Inside, they’re bright and airy thanks to big windows. The city views the school not just as a place for the children it teaches, but as an amenity for the entire community–there are childcare facilities, a gym, an auditorium, and a library, all available for public use.

Henderson-Hopkins School[Photo: Albert Vecerka Esto]

Henderson-Hopkins–like many of the other 11 schools that won Education Facility Design Awards from the AIA this year–represents a new construction philosophy: use architecture to keep schools physically and metaphorically open and reflective of their surroundings. This stands in contrast to generic cookie-cutter institutions that feel removed from their neighborhoods for the sake of perceived safety. The redesigned Sandy Hook School in Newtown, Connecticut, (which did not receive commendations from the AIA this time but is eligible for next year’s award) is a polestar of this ethos: Rather than turning the structure into a bunker to offer safety and security, the architects emphasized openness to encourage natural surveillance and foster a comfortable, versus ominous, atmosphere.

To some kids, school already feels like a prison; architecture shouldn’t reinforce that mind-set. Here are five other AIA-award-winning schools that embody the elegant side of educational design.


Seton Hill Arts Center in Greensburg, Pennsylvania

[Photo: Jonathan Hillyer]

Located about 60 miles southwest of Pittsburgh, the new arts center at Seton Hill University takes its cues from the Rust Belt’s industrial architecture. Design Lab Architects conceived of the 50,000-square-foot space as a “factory for the arts.” With floor-to-ceiling windows on the ground floor, the structure is open to the street and sidewalk. A courtyard in the center of the building encourages students to work outside. But what’s most telling about the structure is perhaps its location in downtown Greensburg, rather than within Seton Hill’s main campus–signaling that the art center is a part of the city, not an ivory tower.

Indian Springs School near Birmingham, Alabama

[Photo: Casey Dunn]

For the Indian Springs School, a rural boarding school in Alabama, Lake Flato Architects made the most of the 350 acres of woodland that surround the campus. Deep eaves extend from the school’s gabled roofs to offer protected outdoor seating, riffing on the archetypal southern porch. Skylights and windows let students see out into the surrounding environment and footbridges traverse swales–landscape design features meant to naturally filter rainwater.

Dwight-Englewood STEM Center in Englewood, New Jersey

[Photo: Garrett Rowland]

With an emphasis on science and technology, it makes sense that the Dwight-Englewood STEM center by Gensler is designed to be open: serendipitous encounters–and spontaneous conversations–are supposed to be a linchpin of innovative thinking. The school almost resembles a tech office thanks to its indoor stadium seating, coworking areas in the heart of the building, whiteboards lining the hallways, and flexible classrooms.


Kennedy Child Study Center in New York City

[Photo: Mikiko Kikuyama]

In transforming a 1930s East Harlem warehouse into a school, Pell Overton Architects had to contend with two structural challenges: low ceilings and virtually no natural light indoors. Their solution? Cut lighting bays into the ceiling and incorporate large windows that look out into the neighborhood.

Mundo Verde Bilingual Charter School, Washington, D.C.

[Photo: Anice Hoachlander]

Sustainability is part of the core curriculum at Mundo Verde, but for children at the school the lesson doesn’t end in the classroom. Outside, garden classrooms are planted with native species and vegetables that are used in the cafeteria’s lunch offerings. To create the campus, Studio 27 Architecture renovated a 40,000-square-foot 1920s school building and constructed a new 10,000-square-foot annex whose glass walls open to a courtyard play area, forming an indoor-outdoor room.

[All Photos: courtesy AIA]


About the author

Diana Budds is a New York–based writer covering design and the built environment.