“contrary to what was taken for granted in traditional education, everyone learns differently.”

-Building Schools: Key Issues for Contemporary Design

Secondary schools. The most neglected, yet (arguably) the most important part of a child’s education. The beginning of figuring out who you are, where your passions lie, and what you want to do for the rest of your life. So why do they suck so much? Or more importantly, what can we do to make them suck less? After scrupulous reading and note-taking (in multiple languages, thank you Denmark for refusing to publish anything in English), I realized that we are not alone in our endeavor to better schools. In fact, there are lots of architects out there that are asking themselves the same questions, finding similar answers, and doing some amazing things to make secondary schools the stepping stone they are supposed to be.

Let’s start with the three basics: personalized curriculum, student-centered schooling, and project-based learning. Throughout all of the research, these three ideas have been the core and basis of 21st century schools, and the reason things are looking up in the high school world. Educators and architects realize that the traditional classroom lecture is not the best way to educate children and that the historic double-loaded corridor is uninspiring and just flat out boring. If we expect kids to learn and grow and accomplish, we need schools that are inspiring and flexible and amazing. And while every school has their own interpretation of what that means architecturally, they do all share a few common traits.

Organized Chaos

Like the main staircase in Ørestad Gymnasium, a central circulation atrium is key. Most effectively located at the center of the school, not only are these key to letting in light where the windows at the edges of the building can no longer reach, it creates a central hub where students and faculty alike navigate through. It is the main place where people from every discipline interact with each other and create the school community. Not only that, but having the circulation in the center allows for the learning spaces to be directly surrounding it, eliminating any dark corridors that would otherwise be the circulation space.


They’re all the rage. Ever since Hellerup Skole in Denmark decided to combine the main circulation space with the main meeting space, schools all over are following suit. And this new configuration of space has been very beneficial in students gaining independence. Students are treated as more mature and treat the open space as a learning space for small groups and a hangout space in between classes. These new gathering space stairs are also perfect for large group gatherings for class or school-wide presentations and announcements.

Community Center

Public schools need public spaces, and the more integrated they are, the more integrated the school will become in the community. This is easiest in smaller communities, like ours and Mimers Hus in Sweden. The entrance to this school is like that of an art gallery: welcoming and awe-inspiring. And the people that inhabit the spaces are a mixture of students and community: the chefs in the kitchen are culinary students and the artwork in the galleries are from local artists and prospective art students at the school.

Flex Hype

Flexible is personal. And at Råholt Secondary School in Norway, it’s hard to get any more flexible. The school has three main lecture halls for the three levels, and then the rest of the space is “open learning zones punctuated with colorful insertions that denote specialist work areas.” For example, an area marked off with color that has monitors to serve as a computer lab for students, or designated “quiet areas” for independent working. The building has no formal classrooms, just open learning zones to allow students to work in larger or smaller groups, depending on what they need. The same challenge continues: defining areas in open-plan spaces “with changes in level, furniture and dividing walls.”

Learning Bases

Also referred to as “a town within a town,” an idea I became quite partial to. Jåttå Vocational School in Sweden has an interesting take on this idea, where there is a “main street” running through the school, with separate learning bases branching off. Each learning base has a variety of spaces in it, catering to the subject that is the focus of that particular branch, and all of the bases connect and share the central library, auditorium and kitchen. Allowing the different subjects to have their own spaces allows for more personalized and specific learning and studying areas for the students and more one on one time with the teachers.

Student Families

While this was not as common (and also not so much architectural), it was still an idea that I thought deserved to be recognized. The Merchant’s Academy in the UK has an idea very similar to our “clusters,” although while most of us based the mixture of our clusters off of the idea of mixing disciplines, this school’s clusters are a mixture of years. The school formed a “house system” to try and fight the issues of low attendance and low aspirations. By assigning students to “families,” it created a system where the older students look after the younger students and act as their mentors to provide ideas and encouragement and give the students a sense of family and belonging while at school.

Color Code

Oh the Europeans and their fondness of bold colors. Whether it is the bold approach of painting each section of a school a different color, or the more business-like approach of simply having the students wear a defining color for their given concentration (like the Thomas Deacon Academy in the UK that has their students wear a tie the color of their subject area), color is key. It gives the students a sense of identity and pride for their area of study and just makes the school more fun to be in.

Inside Out

One of my favorite challenges to the common classroom, also known as “anti-architecture”: The Forest School Movement. Their main idea? That “children need to be in touch with their natural surroundings to grow up as balanced human beings.” While to some a bit extreme, the L’ecole Buissoniere in Belgium is a school in the woods. We are talking literally a circle of chairs in between trees. But the idea behind this school is note-worthy, this being that “anything one can do in a classroom can also be done outside.” And while their solution to the problem might not be everyone’s cup of tea, there is the wonderful Kingoskolen in Denmark that consists of learning hubs surrounding a wetland courtyard whose goal is “blurring the boundaries between inside and out.” And if you still haven’t had your fill of manifestos, then don’t worry fam, here’s another manifesto dedicated to non-traditional learning spaces put together by the UK Department for Education and Skills called “Learning Outside the Classroom.”

Child’s Play

And last, but not least, the most important part of designing a school: having the students help. We saw this personally with the puzzles, kids know what they want! They are “experts in their experiences of places and spaces they use. Only they can know what it is really like to experience a place as they do.” The perfect example of this is the Remaking Learning program in the UK. Architects worked with teachers to create principles for spaces based on the way they wanted to teach. These were then given as prompts for 11 year olds to “design a school for a day.” The results were published locally and parents and governors and building teams came together to view and discuss the results. Many of the ideas were then imbedded into the briefs for new Learning Centers throughout the UK. Because who better to design the schools than the very people that inhabit them?