Multi-level schools for multi-level living: 7 lessons from great cities around the world (and lots of pics)

Living room comfortLook around at the places where people gather: shopping malls, offices, hotel lobbies, pubs. All these places are seeking to make an environment that make people want to return. At my local mall there are numerous ‘living room’ areas for people to sit, meet and wait. The design of these new communities are multi-level, spacious and use colour and lighting to create the right atmosphere. The designers thought about the way people move around, to see more, stay longer and presumably purchase more.

primary school 3The traditional Australian school has a wide, broad footprint, reflecting the spaciousness of our land. Usually, they are single or double storey buildings, opening onto a covered verandah overlooking a play area. This means there are often fewer corridors to herd the students along.

However, in many cities today, the medium to high density housing market is booming, bringing families into the city and apartment living. As a result schools in these areas are bursting at the seams. Many of us live in multi-level cities, but are reluctant to think about multi-level schools school.

I have visited multi-storey schools in a number of cities around the world. Older cities like New York, London, Amsterdam need schools where the people are and the people are in the older parts of the city, but even in new developments in Manchester, Copenhagen, Stockholm and Auckland schools are designed to go ‘up’ rather than ‘out’.

What does it mean to rethink how we design schools in Australia? Here are some ideas from around the world, schools and libraries I have visited on SCIL Vision Tours that may provide insight into rethinking the design of school.

Multi-level schools: Often designed around an atrium, these schools open the learning, giving a sense of space within. The spaces for learning are wide, multi-age and/or large cohorts often share an entire floor.

Shared open social spaces: One of the most common elements of multi-level schools are the social/meeting/eating spaces, where the whole community are welcome, without barriers that separate staff spaces from student spaces.

Stairs as a focal point and gathering place: In a number of schools and libraries the stairs are designed to be more than the means of travelling between levels. Wide stairs area enable free flow of movement of large numbers of students and also serve as gathering places for the community.

Spaces within spaces: These smaller spaces enable groups to work on a project, individuals to get into their own headspace and they also can create a sense of fun. A large open space can be broken up with smaller spaces.

Open movement areas and wide corridors extend the learning areas: Corridors have traditionally been considered the efficient means for movement, but are often an inefficient use of valuable space for learning. Make them wide, accessible and part of the learning area.

Light, colour, comfort: Each of these require attention. Designing a space that enables the students to see outside, to see sky and trees and to work in natural light helps everyone’s mood. Similarly, bringing colour through lighting, wall colours, murals or glass panels adds vibrancy.

Many of us like to choose the location and the furniture for the task, it is the same with students. A variety of furniture types provides students with choice. This will mean that all students may not be facing the front, which begs the question, “Do we really need a front at all?”

The People matter: A well-designed school is the starting point, creating the right culture and supporting the students and teachers in the use of the space is essential. Here are a few key areas that require deliberate planning and careful execution to make the transition:

  • Creating a collaborative work and learning culture
  • Rethinking the role of the teacher
  • Simple and reliable technology
  • Leadership that communicates vision




Why travel? It continually changes me #VisionTour13

I am in the final month of preparation for SCIL Vision Tour 2013. As the Northern Hemisphere heads back to work after the summer, I start to make the final confirmations with my contacts across the seas. It’s close.

VisionThe tour is called ‘Vision’ for a good reason. It’s only when we can look at a far horizon that we can see what’s ahead. We can’t envision from the everyday, the detailed view, when we are in the thick of it, but from taking some time to see the big picture. Each year as we host these tours we are in the company of a great group of educators and administrators who are keen to learn more and see what elements can be integrated into their contexts.

There are elements of travel that aren’t much fun… queues, checks, queues, checks, and that last couple of hours of a long haul flight. But I once I’ve arrived and face a new day in a new city, the irritations fall away and I am excited. 2013-05-04 16.22.05

What do I love?

Negotiating my way around a city, learning from the locals, not expecting my life. I am a people-watcher. I try to get the zeitgeist, the feel. I don’t want to be a tourist who stands out like a sore thumb, but the traveller who is shaped by the journey.

Cheese shopFood, of course. I usually avoid the places on the tourist strips and fossick in the back alleys to find where the locals congregate. Then I ask stupid questions, “What are they eating?”, pointing to a nearby table.

CoffeeFinding the great coffee. I have been relatively successful in hunting out the cool places in a city. It’s my travel-hobby – see the Coffee pages. 
Caga Tio

The quirky local traditions that make no sense to people from other place. Like Caga Tio, Barcelona’s Christmas log that excretes treats for children.

But most importantly, it’s the learning, about the world and ultimately about myself.

  • The world – Culture is shaped over time and experiences. History, ancient and modern, have an ongoing impact on today. When we open our eyes we catch the unexpected.

  • Myself – Overcoming challenges, problem solving – I’ve had my assumptions questioned and my worldview confronted.

Vision Tours focus on shaping vision. We experience schools, museums, libraries and places for work and learning. Each year the tour introduces some different elements, as we come across new examples of rethinking learning and spaces, and great new personalities.

Do you want to come in 2014?



Sagrada Familia – breathtaking in its generosity of space and light.


On our first morning in Barcelona we visited Sagrada Familia. I have never been so overwhelmed by a building that truly took my breath away. This church shows how generosity of space and light and attention to detail in design can create a building that I think I would describe as the most captivating space I had ever walked into.

Described as a Modernista Masterpiece it is still under construction 80 years after the death of Antoni Gaudi, its creator. The construction is faithfully true to his original design.


Inside this immense church it feels like a forest – treelike columns, with high branches supporting the canopy above. Natural light streams into the cavernous internal space.

Gaudi paid detailed attention to every element within the space.

He designed and built a school house for the children of the construction workers which has a storybook feel.

As well as preserving the school room, Gaudi’s design studio has been replicated and it provides information about how the structure was designed.

We took the lift to the top of the tower, to enjoy the view of Barcelona…

20121217-154623.jpg …and the amazing journey down the stairs of a couple of the towers connected by small bridges was spellbinding in its geometry

These few thoughts and photos can, in no way, express the grandeur of Sagrada Familia

This was our very first morning in Barcelona. It is an amazing city.