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Perkins+Will updates two Atlanta high schools with award-winning designs

2012-12_01
The new entrance hall of Benjamin E. Mays High School. (Photos by Jonathan Hillyer)

Researchers from many disciplines — architecture, neuroscience, sociology — have studied the impact of architecture on human behavior. Their data corroborate what you probably have figured out from experience: that the character of space, light and circulation, not to mention scale and materials, plays a powerful role in affecting our moods, attitudes and performance.

It may seem common sense that natural light improves one’s mental state, that a confusing plan engenders anxiety, that creating pleasant spaces for people to congregate in encourages them to do just that. Or that crowding schoolchildren and teenagers into narrow hallways is a recipe for fisticuffs.

But those things apparently weren’t so clear to those designing and commissioning schools in the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s. Many were constructed like bunkers, with small windows and dingy, crabbed corridors: no wonder kids compared school to prison.

Such was the state of Benjamin E. Mays and D.M. Therrell high schools when the Atlanta Public Schools hired Perkins+Will to update them. No longer: the Atlanta architects have transformed those Southside schools into floodlit, rationally organized spaces that embody the latest thinking in educational philosophy and a sense of civic dignity. The school projects have garnered awards from both the AIA Georgia and South Atlantic Region (SAR) AIA Georgia.

Well-lit halls and classrooms at the renovated D.M. Therrell High School.

The main goal of the renovations was to transform educational behemoths into smaller schools-within-schools. This reflects APS’ evolving curriculum, in which students choose a career path — health sciences, culinary arts, college prep, etc. — and receive specialized instruction in “academies” devoted to that discipline.

The move is also a response to research suggesting that students in smaller schools, who are more likely to develop personal relationships with teachers, are more engaged and less likely to fall between the cracks and drop out.

It would have been easier to start from scratch with new buildings, but also much more costly, both financially and environmentally. Instead, the architects saved sections of the buildings that could be reused — in both cases, the gymnasium and auditorium, which bookended the original buildings — and razed the portions between. The academies were given their own floors or corridors and labs customized for their needs.

Site plan of Therrell High School, before and after the renovation. (Courtesy of Perkins+Will)

The central core of both schools contains shared spaces, such as the cafeteria and media center. Both boast a grand new entrance — a double-height, glass-enclosed lobby — that is welcoming to students and the surrounding community and expressive of the importance of learning and the institutions devoted to it.

And openness and transparency extend beyond the entrances. The cafeterias are glazed spaces with views to the outside and corridors. Unlike the hushed libraries of yore, the media centers have the coffee-shop atmosphere that this generation is comfortable in. (I was appalled by the paucity of actual books, but maybe that’s my generational bias.)

At Mays High, light floods an art room, which offers a balcony workspace.

Though born of similar principles, the schools are not cookie-cutter designs. Each is a response to its site, the original building and particular circumstances, and each has its own character. For example, the designers for Mays, led by Jack Allin and Barbara Crum (Perkins+Will’s K-12 education market leader), used the king-post trusses that span the large public spaces both as engineering and a design element. The Therrell team, led by Marco Nicotera and Crum, saved a grove of trees that had abutted and hidden the original construction and pulled back the footprint to create a campus green bordered by the grove on one side.

A new campus green, bordered by an old grove of trees, fronts Therrell's new facade.

 

The new Mays entrance.

Projects with limited budgets, such as schools, require a certain discipline. There’s no hiding behind aesthetic bells and whistles. One can paint the lockers in school colors and install a patterned floor, but ultimately the plan and spatial character must carry the load — and so they do at Mays and Therrell.

The Mays project has received Honor Awards from the Georgia chapter of the American Institute of Architects and South Atlantic Region, AIA. The Therrell project has received Merit Awards from the AIA Georgia and South Atlantic Region AIA.

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