Parramatta's Arthur Philip High School. © Fairfax

A discussion on vertical modes of learning with Hayball's Richard Leonard

Last month it was reported that Parramatta would be developing NSW's first high-rise school set to open in 2019. Urban Melbourne discussed some of the opportunities and challenges associated with a vertical campus and how it might be implemented in Melbourne with Hayball Director Richard Leonard.

Laurence Dragomir: Has the practice had much involvement in investigating the high-rise school model?

Richard Leonard: Yes, we have been involved in a couple of similar projects recently. One assisting the Department of Education in re-thinking a denser model of school in one of the outer suburbs in one of the more built up areas - it was a small study of what a dense model of secondary school might be.

The major one was a few years ago where we worked with VicUrban to re-think what a primary school model might be in the context of an area like the Docklands. That was quite a significant study undertaken working with the VicUrban team and especially with the education expert Dr. Julia Atkin to really promote what might be a specific response to a dense urban condition such as the Docklands. But also in the sense of what might be teasing out a contemporary response to education and exploring a 21st Century education model.

LD: Was that an exercise in developing some more general ideas rather than a site specific response i.e. was this done prior to a site being chosen at Digital Harbour?

RL: It was more about developing ideas. Some sites were “road-tested” but it was fairly fluid; it was more about exploring what might be more of a successful education model that would fit in the context of Docklands.

Vertical School conceptual study. © Hayball

In the end like a lot of these studies, it's really a matter of waiting for the planets to align. It really requires government departments and the authorities to co-operate to make it happen. It was a very interesting study in terms of re-thinking, firstly the model of schools and secondly how that transfers into a really dense and rich environment such as Docklands… but you could intersperse that really with any inner city condition. You could even think in terms of the denser areas in the outskirts of Melbourne or even Sydney. In Melbourne places like Dandenong, Cranbourne or Ringwood - those sort of built up areas or in Sydney as we're seeing with the Parramatta school. Any of those environments are really conducive to the concept of a denser school model that responds to its specific urban context.

LD: What are some of the programmatic issues around safety and amenity that should be considered and some of the challenges they might raise?

RL: I think safety is probably the easy one because you deal with that in the knowledge that we have some pretty powerful regulatory controls that predict what you have to do in terms of life safety. Amenity is the big one particularly in terms of breakout spaces and play spaces and that's a big challenge in dense urban contexts.

But there’s an even bigger issue and one that I believe people aren't addressing – and it's lost in the immediacy of people “solution jumping” to propose the design solutions. The bigger issue is in really understanding what the education model is… because what we know is that you can't try to shoehorn a traditional school into that sort of environment - that is to say that we just can’t take a traditional school model and stack it 5-storeys high - that's simply not the model that's going to work.

It's really about defining what is the contemporary model of education that will work in that rich urban environment and combine to contribute to it. That is, what can the city offer the school and the school offer the city? And to better define what we mean by the contemporary school mode, I suppose this is best summarised by a place containing variety of spaces that are adaptable, creative, collaborative, responsive and working through the reciprocal nature of education which supports learners that are self-directed and teachers that are learning mentors… and that integrates with the community. So it's a very different model to transfer those traits into the city or a dense urban context and not just try to replicate a traditional, outer urban school model. That's the real cruncher.

And I think there's obviously a great possibility in terms of the land and financial efficiency with the dense school model. But then how do you make it contribute to a sense of community? How do you enable the workers or the residents of that area to have their kids educated close to their workplace? And how you make it function is coming back to that fundamental definition of contemporary education and the response of the educators to successfully promote, implement and sustain the model.

This is critical. Especially in the dense urban school, it's about the re-imagining of the education model and how it responds to the context and the community. Defining the model and the pedagogical response - that is, how do learners learn and how do teachers teach? And with such a fundamental shift, having the government behind it and supporting the shift in thinking is crucial. The Parramatta model is a good example: it's had very competent architects who are skilled in education and who have developed a pretty interesting model, but the concern I have is that it needs to be matched by the government in its education philosophies and pedagogies.

However as I understand it, what the authorities have publicized in Parramatta is 'classrooms of the future'! But as a Sydney colleague astutely points out, so often in that State they haven't yet progressed to classrooms of the present. The very fact that they're also talking about “classrooms” is a bit of a giveaway because that's a very traditional way of learning and of thinking of schools. So I have some concerns about how the project there might be developed successfully and hopefully the government does respond to the more progressive thinking and work with it because it's fundamental for success in the Parramatta context.

LD: With a vertical model how do you see that playing out - there was a brief mention of it earlier - in terms of open space, sports facilities etc? I remember working a number of years ago on the MacRobertson Girls' High School masterplan and one of the areas we looked at was how the school utilised its location and adjacency to Albert Park and the facilities on offer there - almost becoming an extension of the school grounds or campus. Do you see that as something that as being one possible solution to addressing the need and desire for open space and other facilities?

MacRobertson Girls' High Masterplan 2010. © Kerstin Thompson Architects

RL: I think that's absolutely right. I'm pretty familiar with MacRob as we also did some masterplanning work there some years ago ourselves. It's interesting because as you would realise, for them to function they virtually rely on that synergistic use of the locality; that is they walk their students down to MSAC (Melbourne Sports & Aquatic Centre) to use many of the facilities there and that's vital for their functioning as a school. Also they utilize the adjacent public parkland for break-out and recreation. It is a really good example of how a school can successfully exist in an inner city location. But then I think you have to ask "what are the next steps?"

Now MacRob's is a very traditional model of school that promotes a very specific and important function in the Department of Education system here as one of their Lighthouse high-performance schools. So I guess when we're talking about the next steps in an inner urban area then how do you considering the school as more of an integrated community resource. That works to some extent at MacRob where, for example, their Gymnasium is heavily used out of hours by the local community. In inner-urban schools it is important to consider the opportunities for those reciprocal relationships that schools can have with their locality.

For instance if you take the Docklands as an example there was consideration of how a school could use the collateral of the city such as galleries, museums, the municipal library, the river or any of the other pieces of infrastructure that exist; and conversely how the school could support community activities and services that would help develop that relationship and connection with the local community – so the school could act as a focus for what is currently a fairly desolate area. To explain that idea further, there was consideration for how the school might embrace some of the City of Melbourne functions to have connection to social services or communal facilities or meeting spaces etc. In that context we were considering does the school need a library or can it use the Docklands Library instead, so you could really think about that synergistic connection of school to its context.

We went further in fact to look and say well that's one model and there's plenty of models around the world that are good examples of that; one of the best ones, the Discovery School in Christchurch (pre-earthquake) was from memory in a 5-6-storey building located in the middle of the Christchurch CBD. The students were using the collateral of the city seamlessly – city mall, the parklands, the library etc and even having interconnections with businesses… really, an intense and rich use of the city resources.

So when it came to the Docklands school we were also considering the possibilities to have an impact in the whole of the Docklands area. One of the propositions for instance was a satellite model – does the school need to be in a single location or can it be a more dispersed model? You could think of the school having a central hub and supporting satellite facilities around the neighbourhood that could be much more of a finer grain response to the particular different localities of that context and that provide a much broader set of resources and opportunities. For example, the arts areas could co-locate with galleries or the sports area co-locate with the city’s sports facilities or learning hubs could be embedded within local communities. And that was pretty interesting because again it was trying to get away from the “fortress school” mentality and thinking that the first step is to encourage the “code-sharing” of facilities and learning spaces that might exist in a number of community locations. Some schools have done that pretty successfully in terms of having city-campuses, or outpost facilities in the country, overseas, in shopping centres and so forth, so there's many other ways to think of it.

Vertical School conceptual study. © Hayball

LD: Now the obvious question I think is, and you sort of touched on it before but what might some of these designs look like? And how do you future proof the schools to cater for growth and dealing with advances in technology?

RL: That's the million dollar question isn't it and I don't think there's any simple answer. I think some interesting thinking has been provided by Steven Harris, the principal of Northern Beaches Christian College in Sydney. He often challenges architects by questioning how do you even know that the school that you are developing now will even be a school in, say, 30 years’ time? So he correctly promotes the need to build-in flexibility of use, but more perversely is questioning us on the future of “bricks and mortar” schools. His current model of school that he regularly admits inspired him was walking around Madrid Airport where he concluded it was a pretty good model for a school in the sense that you have all the possibilities of flexible learning in a rich environment. So he has re-conceptualised his school along the lines of almost the supermarket principle of not talking about classrooms at all but talking about a rich variety of experiences and opportunities – and very much a flexible, creative, student-centric model.

I think whether it's an inner city school or a dense school or an outer suburban 12ha lot, we're still really dealing with exactly the same fundamental problem: where is education heading? I think there are the universal principles of student-centric learning, of more research-based work, of collaborative paradigms, of interconnections with community that is much more stronger than it was a decade or two ago. I think all of those things can only continue to emerge and grow and be impacted by our re-thinking of education and also by advances in technology.

We were recently wrestling with the notion of advances in technology in terms of education. For instance, speaking with some educators about the possibility of where some of this technology is heading and the fact that probably in just a few years’ time we will have students working with 3d glasses etc. That means they could do a lot of work at home or in fact anywhere, but still feel like they in the school or teaching environment - that you could have an immersive school experience virtually. Similar to Steven Harris’ provocations, that's going to radically shift the thinking of what is “school” and how is it delivered.

LD: Anything you would like to finish the discussion with Richard?

RL: If I could reinforce one thing, I'd say the missing link and possibly - and I hope not - but possibly key challenge with the Parramatta school, is that so often governments are good when making the big announcements and putting up the edifices as the “next big thing”. But the key part is to support that with the infrastructure – both the human and the policy framework – to make sure that it is sustainable. Human in terms of getting their teachers professionally developed to be able to work in these new contexts; and augmented by policy framework supporting what they are doing system-wide and not just as an isolated outpost exemplar school. Otherwise, we might just be developing a white elephant.

LD: Richard, it has been a pleasure and I thank you again for taking the time to have a chat.

1 comment

Riccardo's picture

Schools in Australia massively umderutilised. Should be running shifts as eksewhere.

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