When it comes to designing schools, architects design around the mantra of creating a community. A place is more than simply bricks, mortar and design nuances, it's more about allowing a group of people, typically from within the local area, to flourish and convene within the one precinct. Public schools are, unlike their private counterparts, an emulsion of peoples from all walks of life, and with everyone in the one building, it is where you find that communities stereotypically thrive.
Oran Park is synonymous with car racing. Now the scene of one of New South Wales’ biggest ever residential developments, its history is steeped in Indigenous tradition and the infamous Dunlop Bridge. Oran Park High School, designed by Sydney-based practice Pedavoli Architects, aims to channel its local community and history within the site, while adopting and implementing the modern learning practices of today that have been developed by research undertaken by New South Wales’ Department of Education (DoE).
Oran Park High School is exceptional. One of the first high schools in New South Wales designed to house 2000 students, its design features the contemporary design principles of modern architecture, intertwined with the region’s rich history, and the sentiments of the DoE. The colours of the facade are inspired by movement, a tip of the hat to car racing, and there are several Indigenous murals that have been created to represent the areas they reside within. And in a rather obvious acknowledgement of its past life, there’s a Mini Cooper in the cafeteria and a scaled version of the racetrack located in the playground.
The school’s learning spaces were created by working through the DoE education guidelines and adapting them to contemporary teaching and learning practices. This task was undertaken in consultation with the key user groups and stakeholders, facilitated by an education consultant.
The school was also inspired by new-age methods of teaching and learning, Pedavoli were able to create what the practice’s Partner Sam Rigoli describes as future-focussed learning spaces.
Rigoli believes that the overall urban design of a school is imperative to its integration into a community. Not necessarily relying on architectural flourishes, the architect says the school must be functional and accessible, and laid out in a manner that allows all people, from staff and students and visitors, to make their way through the site in way that is clear and logical.
“Urban design strategies, in my opinion, are as important, if not more important than the actual aesthetic of the buildings themselves,” he says.
“The way the building addresses the street, defines its entry and creates a protected student environment, contributes to creating a sense of community."
“We’ve developed a series of principles through the years and getting those urban design elements right is as important as the building aesthetic.”
Pedavoli worked to establish an adaptable grid structure that has effectively future proofed the learning spaces, accounting for a potential pro-digital shift that may come to the fore in due course. The practice has created a signage and wayfinding strategy that was utilised within Oran Park and has since been developed on a number of other school projects, that allow for clear and simple navigation throughout the schools.
The school transitions slowly from students’ primary years through to the final stages of schooling life and senior years. The classrooms within the senior primary section of the school are more open in comparison to the other primary school learning spaces, with a bridge between the primary school and high school operating as a literal transition between primary school and high school. As students progress, they eventually make their way into the Senior Learning Space, which overlooks the Oran Park township and evokes thoughts of future employment opportunities.
While Oran Park High School is a place for learning, it is also very much a place for teaching. The spaces and staff rooms are designed for teachers to be at their best, with the specialist learning spaces giving teachers the tools they need to properly convey a message. Oran Park High School’s Principal, Brad Mitchell, was on the school’s advisory committee during its infancy. Lobbying for a number of specialised spaces at a time when he was the Principal of another school, Mitchell says the creation of a number of spaces catered to the modern learning and teaching needs of those within the school has optimised learning for students of all ages and abilities.
“The school operates as a campus of sorts, with a lot of future-focussed, flexible spaces, many of which I recommended in the early stages of the design process,” he says.
“The Senior Learning Centre offers HSC students with a place to do group work together and work on assessment tasks, our Innovation Hub resembles something rather similar to a real-life workshop, and finally we have a hospitality space which takes on the form of a cafe. The three of those are examples of things that were incorporated by Pedavoli after our early discussions, and it lends itself to a variety of different learning styles.”
Mitchell says the staff — all 170 of them — at the school integrate seamlessly into the modern learning spaces, outlining that each teacher possesses a unique teaching style tailor-made to the facilities at Oran Park.
“My big thing in terms of my staff is the relationships that they develop with the students and other staff, as we’re very much a relationship-based school. For us, it’s about developing a positive culture and building off the back of that with the spaces we possess.”
Building relationships builds community, and building community brings camaraderie. Rigoli and Mitchell, through the rigorous process of creating the school, have established an ongoing relationship, with Rigoli carrying out a presentation to new staff at the beginning of every school year. The architect says it is our job to create a space where a community will flourish.
“The school is at the heart of any community. Giving the community a place where the hall and sports fields can be utilised outside school hours is important. It goes beyond just the chairs and tables inside.”
“Schools are not all about the aesthetic. The projects belong to the people, and good design should permeate every aspect of it. You hope the school takes on a life of its own that as people learn the building and learn how to use it, they find other ways to interact and to use the spaces in ways that we, as a practice, could never have imagined.”
Photography by Ela Glogowska.