This year the Urban School in San Francisco turns 50 years old. And on Monday, the school will open the Mark Salkind Athletics and Academic Center and expand its campus by more than 50%. Although the new building is adding 25,850 overall square feet of useable space, this student-friendly building is really all about its small spaces.
Small spaces, as Urban’s Head of School Mark Salkind describes it, is what makes a building student friendly. This is evident on any given day at Urban School around lunch time. Students take full advantage of every available corner, nook, bench, grassy area, and elevated surface to gather in small groups to study, eat and socialize.
This phenomena isn’t unique to Urban students or even high school students. This was an important component to our design at San Francisco Friends School as well. Around each classroom, we carved out nooks of occupy-able space or commons. These are display areas and gathering spaces which accentuate the activities in the adjacent classrooms. And this is where kids’ learning overlaps socializing.
Urban’s campus has several “centers of gravity”, as Mark refers to them, and the new building follows suite. Drawing students across the street and through a passage to the 2nd floor courtyard entrance, the predominantly glass-clad building will host school assemblies, physical activity courses, athletics-department practices, and games in the full-sized gym illuminated by a wall of windows that look out to the courtyard and the western sky. The spaces surrounding the gym are home to seven new humanities classrooms designed to take advantage of the northern light and views of Golden Gate Park’s panhandle. The building also hosts a second organic on-campus lunch option, student services like college advisors and tutoring, and the school’s new9,200 square foot rooftop greenspace surrounded by San Francisco’s roof tops, tree tops and Sutro Tower. But it’s the spaces built into the pathways to these destinations, that we hope will entice students to linger and hang out.
Mostly, these spaces are expressed as simply designed wood benches that invite students to pause and talk after class, group with classmates to collaborate, or to gather for lunch with friends. These benches are also intentionally positioned for quiet moments like taking a spontaneous break to absorb the warmth of the sun. The benches function as seats, tables and places to recline. There are benches along the windows framing the tree branch-view of the park below. Benches overlooking the gym. Benches tucked between stands of lockers. Benches along the classroom walls. And lots of outdoor benches in the courtyard and on the rooftop greenspace.
Like at Friends School, the circulation at Urban was designed with generous widths to accommodate more than just clusters of kids along the benches. There is room enough to navigate impromptu gatherings of students seated on the floor or in the soon-to-arrive moveable furniture.
Today, these halls are empty except for the contractors hurriedly finessing the final details. The bare walls will soon hold trophies and displays reflecting the experiences and accomplishments of current and past students. And on Monday, the space will fill with students. We hope they will embrace it, settle into it and make themselves at home.