In August, students and faculty of North Atlanta High School swapped their school in the heart of historic Peachtree Heights for the former corporate campus of IBM at the extreme northwestern boundary of the city of Atlanta.
Local architecture firm Cooper Carry, in association with Collins Cooper Carusi Architects and Paul Cheeks Architects, oversaw the conversion of the 800,000-square-foot complex sited on 56 acres of heavily forested terrain. The transformation of a high-rise office for its new use entailed many challenges, but the result is a unique environment that successfully meets the needs of a new school.
The centerpiece of the campus was, and is, the 11-story Lakeside building completed in 1977 by Thompson, Ventulett, Stainback & Associates. In addition, there stood a nine-story annex constructed in the 1980s (the Hillside building), a 942-car parking deck and surface lots on leveled clearings.
Jerry Cooper, FAIA, LEED AP, founding partner of Cooper Carry and chairman of the board, stated the design intent was “first, do no harm.” With a picturesque setting and the difficulty of developing the rugged terrain, using already developed spaces became a driving force in the design.
The Hippocratic approach adopted by project manager Margarita Perez (AIA, LEED AP) and her team yielded the conversion of much of the Class A office space into a school for 2,350 students. The Lakeside building houses administrative offices, the media center, cafeteria and academic classrooms. The parking deck was retained, while the parking lots adjacent to the Hillside building were refashioned as sports fields to minimize regrading the natural areas of the site. The architects decided to demolish the old Hillside building. In its place is a new Hillside building designed to house a 600-seat main theater, black box theater, music rooms, a 2,100-seat gym and an auxiliary gym.
There is no mistaking that the Lakeside building is not a purpose-built school. The commodious modern lobby, with its large concrete columns and decidedly retro 1970s spiral stair, is little changed from its former incarnation. However, the glassed-in main office that protrudes into the space announces the building’s new use.
The architecture itself does not demand particular attention. Rather, Cooper Carry allowed the views to define the spaces, playing up the largest asset of the building and site: floor-to-ceiling windows offer spectacular views over the dense tree canopy to the high-rises surrounding the Cobb Galleria, with glimpses of Downtown, Midtown, and Buckhead on the opposite side. The juxtaposition of nature and skyline is breathtaking and inspirational, visible from classrooms, corridors and gathering spaces above the fourth floor.
In contrast to the views, the material palette of linoleum flooring tiles, stainless steel railings and drop ceilings are standard for a school. Atlanta Public Schools, like most large school systems, requires certain material standards in all construction projects. Even so, the interiors of the converted building are elegant and sleek. Cooper Carry not only deployed the materials and color palette inventively but also got approval for custom details to counter the repetitive floor plates of the high-rise.
Each grade, occupying a “learning academy” of two stories, is connected at the center by a monumental stair. Concrete structure was left exposed to allow for high ceilings in the central spaces, and special lights highlight architectural features. Each academy was given a bold theme color. The colors lend a sense of unique identity to each grade, contributing to a sense of place; when the elevator doors open on any floor, the colors are an immediate orientation tool.
In contrast to the verticality of the Lakeside building, the new two-story Hillside building stretches for more than 400 feet. It might have been a rambling extension, its functions disconnected from the Lakeside building; however, Cooper Carry met the challenge by linking the two structures with a “main street” (now called “Warrior Way” in homage to the school’s mascot). This central artery begins in the parking deck, bridging the student drop-off and pick-up lanes, before passing inside the double-height main lobby. Once inside, Warrior Way forms an “L” around the lake, connecting the cafeteria on the third floor of the Lakeside building to the auditorium, gymnasium, and bus drop-off loop at the far end of the Hillside building.
In addition to its role as a physical connection, Warrior Way creates a visual relationship between the new and old buildings. The central axis provides views across the lake between the two buildings and opens to an outdoor plaza to allow for large gatherings during functions in the gym or theater.
Designed to meld with the architecture of the Lakeside building, a concrete trellis runs the length of the addition, punching in and out of the glass curtain wall. The new construction clearly references the old, with the utilization of glass and concrete and a consistent interior material palette. The addition, however, is designed to function independently, allowing the Lakeside building to be closed during noninstructional hours, even as the auditorium and gym are still accessible via Warrior Way.
Cooper Carry’s adaptive reuse of the 1970s Brutalist office complex is an exemplary transformation of a vertically oriented high-rise into a successful school. Jerry Cooper, noting that the building is the first of its kind in Atlanta, envisions projects like this becoming more commonplace as urban and suburban areas look up rather than out to expand.
Additionally, the demand for harnessing the embodied energy in existing buildings will only become stronger as energy consumption and the usage of new materials becomes more heavily scrutinized.
North Atlanta High School demonstrates that reusing buildings never envisioned to be schools can be a success. The incorporation of gathering spaces in each academic community and Warrior Way provides a sense of community within a vast complex. The transformation yielded an excellent creative environment — a school building that is more than a warehouse for learning.
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