In Arlington, Virginia, The Heights merges two schools into a showstopping 180,000-square-foot structure
BIG—Bjarke Ingels Group has designed its first public school, which welcomed its first students in Arlington, Virginia, this school year. Called The Heights Building, the structure merges two existing secondary schools under one roof into an 180,000-square-foot home that can accommodate up to 775 students.
Located on a compact urban plot, the building appears to twist up from the ground, with rectangular volumes stacked fanlike atop one another, resulting in spacious terraces connected by a central stair. BIG covered the finished structure with a smooth, white brick, devised to honor the historic architecture of nearby Alexandria. “Where the outside is materialized in a graceful white glazed brick allowing the sculptural form and the energy and activity of the inside to take center stage, the interior spaces are finished in a rainbow of colors providing an intuitive orientation across all levels from the ground to the sky,” says Bjarke Ingels, founder and creative director of BIG. The AD100 firm worked with Leo A. Daly, who was the executive architect for the project.
The Heights Building now houses the H-B Woodlawn Secondary Program for 6th to 12th graders, which has a specialty in visual and performing arts, and the Eunice Kennedy Shriver Program for special education students. In the works since December 2014, the project was estimated to cost around $100 million, according to the Arlington Public Schools website.
The Heights’ striking appearance can be credited to the density of the surrounding neighborhood. Rather than build out, the team went up. Five stacked floor plates rotate around a central axis, creating plant-filled terraces above each story. In addition to the indoor classrooms, the school was designed to utilize these outdoor gardens as spaces for learning and socializing. The higher terraces were envisioned as quiet spaces for small groups, while the larger lowest-level terrace can be used for all-school and community events, in tandem with the 18,700-square-foot recreation field.
The project adds to a major year for the firm’s campus projects. The Heights is BIG’s fourth school completed within the last academic year, and its first in the mid-Atlantic. (Other projects include the Isenberg School of Management at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, Glasir Tórshavn College on the Faroe Islands, and WeWork’s WeGrow in New York.)
Heady architectural language aside, Ingels affirms that the presence of students is what truly brings a school to life. “I’m excited to see that the students have already made the school their own—not only have the walls become a canvas for their creativity, but also the glass façades!” he added. For what else is a sign of learning?