Back to the Future

A school dedicated to design-based learning opens in the very building where GM’s legendary Harley Earl became the father of the modern car.

It’s an overcast day in early November, and the students of the Henry Ford Academy: School for Creative Studies (HFA) seem especially charged. Deshon Mum-ford, a ninth grader, leads a tour of his new school and explains that some of the excitement may be because he and his classmates just picked their official mascot. The sixth-to-twelfth-grade public charter school opened eight weeks earlier with students from neighborhoods across the city of Detroit as the inaugural class, and now they are helping to establish traditions. Nominations were taken, votes counted, and from here forward the students of HFA will be known as the Mustangs. Deshon, a bright kid who likes to write poetry, says it wasn’t his first choice, but he appreciates the process. “We all got a vote,” he says.

There are many things Deshon appreciates about his school. Tucked into the corner of the mammoth, 760,000-square-foot building that it shares with Detroit’s College for Creative Studies (CCS), HFA was designed to foster innovation and creativity in its student body with its physical layout, which is more akin to that of a design practice than a secondary school. The 120,000-square-foot space occupies portions of four levels in an eleven-story building. Administrative offices and a large gym are on the first floor, and the upper levels hold classrooms. As Deshon leads the group from one floor to the next via a central stairwell, he points out what he likes. “I’ve never been to a school that has carpet on the floor,” he says. “Or this color paint on the walls.” The classrooms—called learning studios—get the best spots, on the perimeter, so even on a gray day they are filled with natural light. (Staff offices are located on the interior of the floor plan.) Glass walls allow that light to flood the corridors, which double as galleries for student artwork. Nooks with tables and chairs pepper the halls, allowing students and teachers to pause for impromptu powwows. (On this day, several college students from CCS have popped in to interview middle school students for a special project on nutrition.) Outside the classrooms, there are public spaces dedicated to study and quiet discussion, and students can rearrange the chairs and tables as needed. Deshon is clearly taken by that level of latitude, a feeling that extends to lunchtime, when the students leave their school to join the rest of the building in a shared cafeteria. “This is the best school I’ve ever been to,” Deshon says.

Creating that level of student engagement was a goal of CCS’s president, Richard Rogers, when he undertook the restoration of this historic building in Detroit’s New Center district. Originally called the Argonaut, the Art Deco structure was designed by Albert Kahn in 1928 for General Motors, and it housed the first design department in the history of the auto industry. The structure takes up an entire city block, and when GM relocated its headquarters more than a decade ago to the Renaissance Center on the waterfront, the building joined the growing number of vacant sites in downtown Detroit.

In July, at the tag end of a $145 million historic restoration undertaken by CCS, the Argonaut was rechristened the A. Alfred Taubman Center for Design Education. The building, which was donated to the school by GM, now serves as a second campus for the college, just a few miles from its first. It is home to CCS’s five undergraduate design departments and its new M.F.A. degree programs in design and transportation design. The restored building contains classrooms and faculty offices for the college as well as loft-style residence halls for up to 300 students. It will have retail and offices, both aimed at reinvigorating the street. Eighty thousand square feet have been set aside for future development, including incubator space for start-up design companies. Rogers envisioned a building where design practice could thrive, from early education to professional development and production.

He also dreamed of a public school that could introduce the city’s predominantly African-American community to career paths in art and design. So CCS partnered with the nonprofit Henry Ford Learning Institute and the Thompson Education Foundation to bring HFA into the Taub-man Center. The academy’s curriculum—developed with CCS, the institute, and partners like IDEO and Stanford’s—uses problem-based design challenges to invigorate the classroom experience and prepare students to be critical thinkers and creative professionals. This model, which is also being replicated in schools in Chicago and San Antonio, is aimed at reversing staggering dropout rates and turning urban public schools into centers of innovation. “We wanted to combine all these activities into one building and explore the opportunities for collaboration,” Rogers says.

Chris Trupiano, manager of interior design for Albert Kahn and Associates, the firm that led the restoration, says that desire for collaboration drove the project. CCS had learned over the years that the traditional classroom layout did not work for team-oriented, project-based design education. “Part of what they wanted was flexibility built into the teaching spaces, especially the lab areas where the college students would be doing their work,” Trupiano says.

The design team began by removing decades of alterations to Kahn’s original design, from drop ceilings to opaque windows, transforming what had become a series of dark and segmented offices into a bright and open interior with flexible work spaces. Walls were removed to create contiguous, open floor plans for each of the college’s design departments, which occupy multiple floors in the building. Movable partitions, tables, and chairs can be reconfigured as projects evolve, with design studios and lecture classes sharing space. As in HFA, college classrooms rim the edges of the floors, capturing lots of natural daylight, while additional classrooms and meeting spaces occupy the interior. Each floor includes galleries of student designs and ample wall space for critiques of works in progress. A high-tech lab offers the latest equipment for machining and rapid prototyping. (Many of the machines were purchased on the cheap at auctions, the result of manufacturing companies selling off goods after the downturn.)

The aesthetic is muted, in deference to the design work. “The idea was that the interior space would not compete with student projects at all,” Trupiano says. “We provided a lot of good lighting and white walls. The concrete floors were ground down to expose more of the aggregate, and then they were simply sealed and polished.” While the layout succeeds on its malleability, it fails on its acoustics. On busy days, all those hard surfaces create a cacophony, so lecture-heavy classes and design studios are held at different times. (“We’re still working out the scheduling,” Rogers concedes.)

Kahn and Associates worked to integrate HFA into the building by creating a porous interior where different activities might overlap. When walls are used, they are predominantly of glass. Students from the college and the charter school can see one another working, and shared public spaces make each feel like they’re a part of the other institution. That kind of physical interaction is a cornerstone of the academy’s educational model: “public school in a public space.” The goal is to expose students to professionals and experiences to expand their worldviews. “There is a lot of intangible learning that goes on simply by being in a location that doesn’t look like school all the time,” says Deborah Parizek, the executive director of the Henry Ford Learning Institute.

The idea of putting a public school in a public space was first born in 1997, when an experimental school called the Henry Ford Academy opened in Dearborn, Michigan. The Ford Motor Company and the Henry Ford Museum teamed up with nonprofits and businesses to develop a school at the museum to prepare students for college and professional life. It set its sights high, and has a 90 percent graduation rate, with 90 percent of graduating students going on to higher education.

In 2003, the Henry Ford Learning Institute was formed to expand the Dearborn model and create a national network of small, community-supported schools. When it came time to develop the curricula for these new schools, Parizek asked business leaders what they thought the most important skills would be in the future. Two words kept coming up: creativity and innovation. So how do you create a public-school education that fosters innovators? Parizek went to IDEO for help. “We came on board and started asking what a framework might mean for an innovation-based school,” says Sandy Speicher, a leader of IDEO’s Transformation practice. “When you’re looking at new models of education, the first question is: How much do you want to stick to the paradigm, and how much do you want to break it?”

Parizek didn’t want to totally jettison traditional, discipline-based courses, but she did want to empower students to believe they could learn and become future leaders in the community. Stanford’s joined IDEO in developing an innovation-focused curriculum that featured a quarterly design challenge. Every few months, students in each grade level work in teams to tackle a different design problem.

The first-quarter challenge for sixth graders, for example, is to create a better work-study space for a partner. First, there is the research phase. Students talk to chair designers about ergonomics; they interview one another about what is distracting and what helps them focus; and they tour many kinds of work spaces to see how different people structure their environments. Then students go through the design process, brainstorming, developing, and testing rough prototypes for their “clients.” The classes—science, language arts, social studies—feed into this design challenge. In math, for instance, students learn about square footage and proportion. In social studies and English, they learn how to become adept at research. “All of their courses weave together around that design challenge, giving them an anchor to attach their new knowledge,” Parizek says.

Classes are regularly postponed for “Stop, Drop, and Design” days, when students engage in special activities in school and out in the community. Design challenges are the same for every HFA school, but teachers have the freedom to adapt them to their own cities, bringing in outside expertise and addressing specific issues relevant to students. After opening new schools in Detroit, Chicago, and San Antonio in the last two years, the Henry Ford Learning Institute has plans to expand into new cities. It will also work to integrate its design-focused curriculum into existing schools.

The ultimate goal of the schools’ model is not to graduate a cadre of future designers but to educate the next generation of innovators and community leaders. “The first wave of these design-based programs were magnet schools that taught architecture and design,” Speicher says. “This new wave of schools looks at how we can use design as the basis of learning. What I love about that is it introduces the career path of design, but it also introduces the career paths of chemists, physicists, lawyers. You’re not only being introduced to design thinking; you’re getting the ability to think critically, and that can apply to any career.”

Pausing outside a classroom, Deshon Mumford considers his own future. Ask him what kind of a career he envisions, and you’ll get a long list: poet, graphic designer, social worker, to name a few. “It’s hard, because there’s so much I want to do, and I don’t know how to pick,” he says. When told that perhaps he doesn’t have to pick, that he could incorporate his interest in design and social work into one career, his eyes widen. “I didn’t know you could do that.”

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