Sep 04, 2013
THEME: Learning

Back to School, Back in Time: Educational Design from Then to Now

“As humane architecture, a building must relate to people.  It must provide an environment which delights beholder and occupant, which inspires respect, productivity, and an ultimate sense of rightness.”
                                                                                                                             – Philip Will, Jr., FAIA

 “A beautiful building is one that is sensitive to the emotional needs of the people who use it, and one that serves the physical functions set for it, and one that has been designed with an understanding of the materials and building methods it requires.”
                                                                                                                             – Lawrence B. Perkins, FAIA

These quotes from our firm’s founders are as true today as they were when they were originally stated.  For over 75 years, Perkins+Will has embraced its duty to study and understand the needs and functions of each school it designs.  We believe the history of the schoolhouse reflects a larger history of education, an evocative lens through which to view the numerous social, economic and political changes over time.

Just as Larry Perkins and Phil Will did, our firm understands that architectural form is directly influenced by innovations in technology, societal changes, and evolving educational philosophies.  Perkins+Will’s current Pre-Kindergarten-12th Grade practice owes a great deal to its visionary founding fathers and their legacy of exemplary school buildings.  Reflecting a history of innovative design, these schools provide a great source of inspiration.

As we begin a new school year, let’s look back at some of the significant moments in Perkins+Will’s educational designs over more than seven decades. Many of these projects demonstrate a clear advancement in the development of school architecture, revealing a commitment to the development of innovative means that untap the possibilities for educational spaces (and the students within them). 

Crow Island Elementary School
Winnetka, IL – 1940

The American Institute of Architects described Crow Island Elementary school as a “landmark of design for education which demonstrates that an inspired educational philosophy can be translated into an architecture of continuing function and beauty.”

The school was the first of its type to be zoned by age group, with four classroom wings surrounding a common activity core. Each classroom is a self-contained unit; an L-shaped space with its own workroom, outdoor study/play courtyard, restrooms, sink, and drinking fountain.

More than 70 years after the school was opened, it remains one of the most imaginatively and effectively-designed educational facilities of our time. Designed in collaboration with Eliel and Eero Saarinen, the school helped to establish Perkins+Will’s reputation as an innovative and sensitive school architect.

Blythe Park School
Riverside, IL – 1948

Blythe Park School gymnasium

Designed almost a decade after Crow Island, this school retains hallmarks of their earlier collaboration with the Saarinens while also revealing some of the newer directions the firm was taking in educational design. 

The designers used residential vernacular to create environments that were familiar to young children, with design elements like sloped roofs and chimneys.  The plan of Blythe Park exposes individual classrooms to the natural environment and continues the idea of autonomous learning environments that originated at Crow Island.

Central Elementary School
Pocantico, NY – 1953

This addition to an existing school displays Perkins+Will’s sensitivity to existing structures as well as the firm’s creative approach to contextual application of modern ideas

Wall systems inside the classrooms allowed teachers to move around blackboards, peg boards and bulletin boards as they desired, creating a flexible environment.  The Perkins+Will trademark of large classroom windows continued here, in this case using a single-loaded corridor to allow natural light to enter from both sides of the classroom.

Dundee Elementary School
Greenwich, CT – 1962

Dundee Elementary received much press upon its opening in 1962, as it was the first school designed for “team teaching,” a concept that attempted to change the traditional “one classroom, one teacher” elementary school organization into one that separated students into larger sections and had several teachers for each group.

Because classrooms would not be the permanent home of one teacher, Perkins+Will avoided placing cumbersome furnishings and storage in the classroom and instead had a “storage spine” which could be used to keep materials out of the way when they were not being used.  Variable spaces were created – ranging in size from medium-group areas for conventionally sized classrooms to large group areas that could hold up to 300 children, divisible by moveable walls to accommodate smaller groups.

New Trier West High School
Winnetka, IL – 1967

After enrollment at New Trier High School outgrew the late 19th century facility, school directors decided to build a second location a mile west of the existing school.  Working with The Architects Collaborative and New Trier Superintendent Dr. William Cornog, Perkins+Will was able to build what was considered at the time the ideal high school for a suburban environment.

The large-scale, quadrangle feel reflected university campus design more than a traditional high school configuration.  Included in the plan was a library in the center of campus, the center of intellectual life at the school. Buildings were connected both on ground level and above by a series of covered and uncovered walkways.

Capital High School
Santa Fe, NM – 1988

Capital High School’s design reflects the history and culture of Santa Fe, utilizing regional forms, materials, colors, scale, and details associated with the Southwest and the Territorial Style.  Elegantly detailed formal entry plazas, covered walkways, and landscaped courtyards offset the buildings, which are clad in light, earth-toned stucco.

The heart of the school is a student commons plaza surrounded by buildings housing classrooms, the library, offices, labs and shops, music and art studios, the auditorium, and physical education facilities.

In bestowing an AIA National Honor Award upon the school, the jury noted that, “proud and dignified in stature, this school also has a rough-and-tumble quality that welcomes the students and the community to it.”

Singapore American School
Republic of Singapore – 1996

This K-12 private school serves the international community in Singapore.  Campus facilities provide amenities to the entire Singapore American School community and serve as a social and recreational center for students, parents, and faculty.  Forms and materials establish the design image and character of the campus and relate it to the local architecture. Demands of the tropical climate—the need for shade, ventilation and protection from severe rains—were chief concerns in the functional and design solutions. The stucco and brick buildings contain single-loaded corridors of classrooms, with roof planes extending to provide shade for the exterior corridors and courtyards which serve as circulation and gathering spaces.

Lake Forest High School
Lake Forest, IL – 2008

Perkins+Will renovated and expanded Lake Forest High School’s Academic East Campus to improve portions of the West Campus facility and fields.  The renovation and expansion brought the school facilities up-to-date and allowed educators to prepare students for life and work in an increasingly technological and competitive global economy.

Facility improvements to the East Campus included classroom additions and renovations, science lab additions and relocation and expansion of the library and student resource centers. The West Campus improvements were designed to accommodate more athletic and administrative functions in order to make room for an improved academic program at the East Campus.

Ballou Senior High School
Washington, DC – 2015

Ballou Senior High School sets a new standard for K-12 education in the District of Columbia. Awarded via design competition, the project is a joint venture between Perkins+Will and Bowie Gridley Architects.  Designed to be both a flagship high school and a community asset, the complex includes a performing arts theater, aquatic center, athletic and fitness complex, health center, day care center, 550-seat auditorium, culinary arts facilities, auto-tech shops being designed in conjunction with Toyota, and media center (in addition to academic, athletic, and administrative spaces).  

A central two-story cafeteria/commons organizes destinations and is accessible during non-school hours as a public gathering space. A large internal courtyard creates a collegiate feel; community gardens and improved green spaces are incorporated in the design.

Learn more about our K-12 Practice on our website.

  1. Halo Stone Designs
    7:46 am on September 6, 2013 | Reply

    What an incredible and inspirational post. Solid work throughout the years. Way to go Perkins + Will.

    Thanks for sharing.

    -Jill from Halo Stone Designs

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