Strengthening Communities Through Architecture

In honor of Black History Month, three design teams present projects that contribute to Black health and wellness.

Perkins Eastman’s Human by Design ethos plays out in many different forms, but the theme is always the same: Our designers, planners, and architects continuously strive for their work to respond directly to the needs of its users and their surrounding communities. To that end, three of our design teams gave a firmwide presentation last week to mark Black History Month and its concentration this year on Black health and wellness. From education to healthcare, these projects represent a commitment to local agencies who have sought to heal and empower the majority-Black populations they serve.

Ron Brown College Preparatory High School, Washington, DC

This new all-boys public high school was part of a larger DC Public Schools initiative, inaugurated in 2015, called Empowering Males of Color. “It was a recognition that the district was not providing these kids the services they needed and the support that they needed,” said Perkins Eastman Principal Patrick Davis, who came to the firm last fall after serving as the school district’s chief operating officer. Black and Latino boys make up forty-three percent of the DC student population, yet they were falling behind their peers in test scores and graduation rates. The initiative included improvements at all grade levels, in addition to recruiting and hiring more Black and Latino teachers, but one of its most celebrated achievements was the new Ron Brown College Preparatory High School for boys, where Perkins Eastman DC transformed an aging middle school into a modern oasis of social support and learning.

The new glass entry provides an engaging civic presence for Ron Brown College Preparatory High School.

The entry opens a vista toward the campus in back and the adjacent Deanwood Recreation Center.
Photographs Andrew Rugge/Copyright Perkins Eastman

“The school had a very clear vision of what they wanted before the project even started,” Davis said. School Principal Benjamin Williams said at the ribbon cutting, “We want our young men to have a space where they can actually respect each other and provide positive feedback to each other, and receive praise from their peers, receive praise from adults, to get used to actually giving and receiving that which is too few and far between for young men of their age.”

Taking Williams’ passion to heart, Perkins Eastman DC Principal and Managing Director Mary Rose Rankin said, “We had the building, and now we had the soul of what this building needed to be.” Working on a “brutal” accelerated schedule so the new school could open for its first freshman class in the fall of 2016, Rankin, K-12 Practice-Area Leader Sean O’Donnell, and their team submitted a design that relied on six principles:

  • Engaging the school more fully with its surrounding fields, landscape, and the adjacent Deanwood Recreation Center (which Perkins Eastman also designed).
  • Transforming the formerly “heavy, institutional” and dark brick entrance into two stories of glass that connect the school’s two wings and provide wide views to the recreation center beyond.
  • Creating two “hearts” of the school, one in each wing. That move included opening the existing first-floor library into a double-height space with walls of glass that look out to a courtyard, thus inspiring achievement; and creating a Fraternity Hall, where the student body meets each morning for bonding and support.

The soaring, double-height library—the academic “heart” of the school—provides views to an inner courtyard.

Fraternity Hall—the social and cultural “heart” in the wing opposite from the library—opens to the campus and the recreation center beyond.
Photographs Andrew Rugge/Copyright Perkins Eastman

  • Graphics and Display: The building itself is a teaching tool, with art and graphics everywhere that convey the mission and vision of the school and represent prominent black male figures through history. Artwork depicting prominent men of color (below, left) and graphics representing the school’s values (right) constantly reinforce the importance of achievement.

Photographs Andrew Rugge/Copyright Perkins Eastman

  • Foster Learning Everywhere: Technology is infused throughout the building, including public spaces and corridors, so students can plug in wherever they are on campus.
  • Create a high-performance learning environment: From cutting-edge labs to high-tech learning tools, these young men are exposed to the best teaching classrooms and formats. The school’s existing architecture also provided opportunities for passive heating and cooling, which the designers capitalized on with additional energy-efficient interventions such as rooftop solar panels.

That first freshman class graduated in 2020. Its young men outpaced the DC school system in graduation rates, both overall and by group such as at-risk students and students with disabilities. In all, nearly seventy-seven percent of the class graduated in four years—compared to 2015, when just forty-nine percent of Black students across the DC system graduated on time. “They’re doing something right,” Davis said. “I’m really excited to see where this school goes from here.”

Click here to view a video, Emotion by Design, produced in 2019, that includes interviews with students and administrators.

Mark Ridley-Thomas Behavioral Health Center, Los Angeles

Perkins Eastman was asked to prepare the scoping documents to transform an obsolete hospital in L.A.’s underserved Watts neighborhood into an integrated behavioral health center. The center offers residential and outpatient mental health care, substance abuse treatment, social services, and primary and urgent medical care.

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The revamped structure incorporates public art both inside and outside, such as the water-inspired metallic sculpture that runs down the front of the building. Photo courtesy Perkins Eastman      

“When we started the project, the building was a depressing place inside and out,” said Gary Goldberg, AIA, who led the project team from Perkins Eastman’s Los Angeles studio. The original Martin Luther King, Jr. Hospital, which formed the core of Martin Luther King Jr./Drew Medical Center, opened in 1972 in the wake of the city’s Watts riots seven years earlier, when lack of access to adequate healthcare was cited as one of the major causes of unrest, alongside police brutality and racist real-estate redlining practices.

Ironically, the celebrated healthcare facility that was supposed to serve this population was shut down in 2007, having lost its federal funding after regulators found that it no longer met the minimum standards of care, and that many patients seeking treatment were dying instead. The building stood mostly vacant for many years in the middle of a larger health campus that had since grown to include a medical university and an outpatient health center.

This time around, “Turning this into a mental-health center was really critical,” Goldberg said. “We’re recognizing more and more that mental health is part of health and not something separate.” The scoping documents, which dictated the design direction that a design-build team was to follow in completing the construction, called for the total gutting of the hospital’s interior to make way for myriad new services administered by L.A. County health agencies—along with probation services for clients transitioning out of the correctional and justice systems. “Lots of agencies were involved, and we had to understand how everything fit together,” Goldberg said. “One of the challenges we had to address was developing a circulation system that would allow for separation of the various client groups, while allowing staff and services to flow efficiently.”

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The new design includes a large central space for a Peer Resource Center, where people who have gone through mental-health treatment themselves counsel new patients about what services they can access.
Graphic courtesy Perkins Eastman

In the process, the plan opened up the building’s interior to admit more natural light and eliminated enclosed rooms at the building’s perimeter to provide circulation paths, common areas, and activity spaces with daylight and views of the outdoors. “We wanted natural light brought in to benefit the most people most of the time,” Goldberg said.

Below: Renderings show how light penetrates the building to illuminate passageways, public spaces, and common areas.

Renderings courtesy Perkins Eastman

The ribbon cutting occurred last fall, and the building is currently in the final phases of opening. “The completion of this transformation into a place of healing and restoration is a poetic outcome for a building that once witnessed tragedy,” Mark Pestrella, director of the Los Angeles County Public Works Department, said at the ceremony that was covered in the Los Angeles Post. Added Dr. Jonathan E. Sherin, the director of the Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health, “With an empty building on the MLK Medical Campus, we had a unique opportunity to imagine what it would be like to have a one-stop shop for all behavioral health needs.”

Click here to see a video tour of the new facility.

McClymonds High School, Oakland, CA

Perkins Eastman is in the early stages of helping to chart a new direction for a beloved high school that plays an important role in the history of West Oakland—“a center of African American culture in the Bay Area,” said Josh Jackson, a planner and senior associate in the firm’s San Francisco studio.

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Image via Facilitron

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Image via Google Maps

The Perkins Eastman team will be preparing bridging documents for a design-build initiative that will modernize and re-envision the campus. These documents will establish the project’s parameters, including the scope of work, design concepts, material specifications, and performance criteria. The process is also serving as a semester project for the school’s Engineering Pathway program. “We’re getting the perspective of students on the priorities they’re looking for in high school, as well as the strengths and weaknesses of the existing facility,” Jackson said.

Jackson has already collected information from a preliminary workshop that will inform elements of the school’s renovation. The cheerleading team, for example, has to practice in a classroom because the existing gym facilities are overburdened. Students interested in music report that the spaces for practice and recording are inadequate. And as is typical for a building of its age, the entire structure has classrooms that are either too hot or too cold. The school doesn’t have any air conditioning.

At the same time students are “journey mapping” with their day-in-the-life experiences throughout the building, Perkins Eastman is also working with the Oakland Unified School District’s environmental staff to assess the levels of dangerous chemicals present in the property’s soil and groundwater. Numerous media reports have detailed the discovery of these toxic substances, which led to the McClymonds students being temporarily displaced from their school just before the pandemic struck in 2020. The continuing analyses will help determine whether the new McClymonds High School will be a retrofit, demolition and new-build, or a combination of the two. “We’ve heard a lot about the environmental justice issues of the site,” Jackson said. “It’s on the forefront of everyone’s mind to make this a safe and healthy center of the community.”

Next week, the team will host its first public meeting to get wider community input into the project that lays ahead. Meanwhile, the Engineering Pathway students—about 50 in all—will be conceptualizing small-scale prototype designs, such as configuring furniture to encourage informal social gatherings or adapting spaces like the cafeteria to better support cheerleading and other extra-curricular activities. Jackson said, “The idea is that the students will come up with concepts, and we can learn from their experimentation.”

In that respect, an important Black community’s young people will gain agency over their learning environment, bolstering the legacy of an historic school so it can help future student generations thrive throughout the twenty-first century and beyond.