How do you give civic scale and stature to a mid-rise school in a high-rise context? This was one of the challenges faced by bKL Architecture in designing the new lower school of GEMS World Academy in Chicago.

Lakeshore East, a 28-acre mixed-use planned community east of the city’s downtown Loop and north of the new Maggie Daley Park (record, October 2015, page 78) is the home of two local landmarks: the 82-floor Aqua hotel and apartment tower (Studio Gang, record, May 2010, page 60), with undulating concrete balconies, and Harbor Point (Solomon Cordwell Buenz, 1972), with 54 floors of curved black curtain wall. These will soon be joined by Wanda Vista (Studio Gang again), a sinuous 93-story skyscraper of light, faceted glass shafts for residences and a hotel. The area’s centerpiece is the lush 6-acre Park at Lakeshore East designed by James Burnett. Despite topping out at a modest 10 stories, the GEMS School—the new kid on the block—holds its own by enhancing the park’s northern edge and giving the neighborhood another kind of eye-catching architecture.

Global Education Management Systems or GEMS, an international network of private K–12 day schools, is making its U.S. debut with the Chicago campus, which opened in September 2014. While tuition is high (about $28,000 to $35,000 annually), the school plans to attract a diverse student body, thanks to a generous financial-aid program. The 83,000-square-foot lower school accommodates 650 students (preK–8) and will share amenities with the institution’s upper school, soon due to begin construction on an adjacent property.

A site of only 9,500 square feet led the architects to stack the program vertically. “The lowest four floors abut existing buildings and have only one exposure,” notes bKL principal Tom Kerwin. “Fortunately, the building faces south. We quickly realized the learning spaces must be organized along this face to take advantage of the natural light and views.” And so emerged a parti, with circulation placed on the north and classrooms and common areas on the south.

A complex site section—due to multilevel Wacker Drive along the Chicago River—resulted in two entry levels, one off the park to the south and another off an upper pedestrian plaza (corresponding to the fifth floor) to the north, which will also provide an outdoor link to the upper school. The first level of an adjacent parking garage helps provide a secure drop-off and pick-up area, used by a majority of students. 

The school’s concrete structure, which allows higher ceilings and good acoustical isolation for noisy spaces such as the gym and music room, is enclosed by a vertically syncopated curtain wall of glass and brightly colored metal panels. The antic boldness and linear rhythm prevent the school from appearing dwarfed by the much taller and more sober towers nearby. The result is a handsome backdrop for the park and a civic focal point for the neighborhood.

“We strove to make this building reflect the fact that children are the primary users,” explains Kerwin. “Using color in a playful manner seemed natural among the muted residential high-rises. In addition, we modulated openings in the exterior panels so they’re appropriate for both the functions contained within and the exposure to adjacent buildings.”

The generous reliance on glass gives the south-facing classrooms, library, dining room, and gymnasium abundant light and panoramic vistas. Even the stairs—on all but the lowest levels—have oversize windows and views, prompting students to use them rather than the elevators. Landscaped setbacks provide a terrace on the fifth floor—which also breaks up the mass—and a rooftop playground on the tenth floor.

The classrooms are all that tech-savvy students and teachers might want in a thoughtfully designed—and well-funded—new school. Each typically incorporates two LCDs with software applications that allow iPad-wielding students to use Web-based communication such as Skype to connect with other classrooms and with other GEMS schools around the world. 

Common areas are generously scaled and nicely detailed. The dining hall on level five, finished in rift-cut white oak and colored tiles, opens to a terrace running the full length of the building and has tables with marker-board tops, so kids are encouraged to take notes and doodle over lunch. The gymnasium has windows of fritted glass for light control. The library, imagined as a sky garden, has a palette of bright colors and a ceiling of white hexagonal panels arranged to suggest clouds.

How do the students like their new school? A sampling of fifth graders elicited a unanimous thumbs-up. “At other schools, you can’t wait to go home,” said one. Her classmate, eager to finish the thought, added, “But we can’t wait to go back to school!” Geoff Jones, the head of the school, observes, “Everyone loves the building, especially the light in the classrooms and the spectacular views of the parks and city.” However, he adds, “the one universal complaint is that the hard interior surfaces make it noisy. Thankfully, the noise is pretty joyful.”


Architect bKL Architecture LLC

225 N. Columbus Drive, Suite 100
Chicago, IL 60601

T 312.881.5999

F 312.469.8130


Personnel in architect's firm who should receive special credit

Thomas Kerwin, Principal in Charge, FAIA
Lynne Sorkin, Project Director, AIA
Michael Karlovitz, Design Director, AIA
Carl Moskus, Technical Director, AIA
Srdjan Avram, AIA
Jayshree Shah, AIA
Angela Spadoni, AIA
Lalima Chemjong
Audry Grill
Brad McBride
Danielle Tillman


Interior designer bKL Architecture LLC



Structural Engineer: Halvorson and Partners

MEP/FP Engineer: WMA Consulting Engineers, Ltd.

Civil Engineer: Mackie Consultants, LLC



Landscape: Wolff Landscape Architecture, Inc.

Lighting: Archiluce International

Acoustical: Shen Milsom Wilke, LLC



Life Safety Consultant: Rolf Jensen & Associates, Inc.

Vertical Transportation Consultant: Syska Hennesy Group

AV/IT/Security: Shen Milsom Wilke, LLC

Food Service Consultant: Edge Associates

Façade Access: Lerch Bates


Client Consultants

Owner’s Representative: Arcadis U.S., Inc.


General Contractor

Power Construction Company



Darris Lee Harris Photography, T 312.718.4469

Wayne Cable, T 312.968.3000 


ClientGEMS Americas


Size83,000 square feet


Cost$34 million


Completion dateSeptember 2014



Structural system

Cast-in-place concrete


Exterior cladding

Masonry: Elgin Butler

Metal Panels: Harmon Inc.

Metal/glass curtain wall: Harmon Inc.

Moisture barrier: Bentonite



Built-up roofing: Soprema (Modified Bitumen), Georgia Pacific (Fluid Applied)

Rubber Play Surface: SofSurfaces

Concrete Pavers: Wausau

Green Roof: Live Roof



Exterior: Viracon

Interior: TGP (fire rated glass)



Entrances: Pittco

Metal doors: Krieger
Aluminum (HM), RACO (interior office)

Wood doors: ALGOMA

Sliding doors: ALGOMA (wood)

Fire-control doors, security grilles: OH Garage Door: Cookson



Locksets: Schlage

Closers: LCN

Exit devices: Von Duprin

Pulls: Assa Abloy


Interior finishes

Acoustical ceilings: Armstrong Optima (classrooms), 
Armstrong Ultima (corridors), Armstrong Soundscapes (library), Armstrong Metalworks (multipurpose room), Ceilings Plus, Planx Mirra (dining room)

Suspension grid: Armstrong Suprafine (classrooms), Armstrong Interlude (corridors)

Cabinetwork and custom woodwork: Hire Nelson

Paints and stains: PPG Paint

Paneling: Hire Nelson

Plastic laminate: Formica

Solid surfacing: Corian

Special surfacing:

- Back painted glass @ walls: Skyline

- Painted glass @counters: Bendheim

- Fabric wrapped tack surface @ walls: Carnegie and Maharam

Floor and wall tile

- Toilet rooms: Atlas Concorde (floors), Floridatile Dining (walls)

- Floors: Terrazzo + Marble

- Classroom sinks & drinking fountain walls: Atlas Concorde

- Kitchen: Daltile

Resilient flooring: Mondo-Harmoni, Johnsonite
 (resilient base), Roppe (rubber stair treads)

Carpet: Milliken (office, music, library field), Bently Prince St. (classroom area rugs)

Special interior finishes unique to this project:

- Tack Surface: Forbo

- Steelcase: Huddleboard system

Multipurpose Room:

- Climbing Wall: Adventure Solutions

- CMU: Trenwyth Astraglaze & Trendstone Plus

- Wall Pads: Draper

- Wood Athletic Floor: Robbins



Parent Lounge/Reception furniture:

- Couch: Arper Loop w/Maharam

- Chairs: Knoll Saarinen, Keilhauer Cahoots

- Reception Desk Chairs: Herman Miller Eames Task Chair

- Stools: Allermuir Pebble

- Coffee Table: Knoll Saarinen

Classroom furniture:

- Stool: Allsteel scooch

- Tables and Chairs: VS

- Lounge Chair: Allsteel Linger

- Lakeshore Learning: Storage units w/tray, mobile art trolley and mobile book display

- Modular Storage w/marker surface: HON Smarklink

Library Furniture:

- Custom sectional, shelving, librarian desk & benches by Hire Nelson

- Womb Chairs by Knoll

- Upholstered Stools: Arper w/Maharam Fabric

- Wood Chairs: Artek Alvar Alto

- Tables: SPEC Amoeba s


- Custom booth seating by Hire Nelson

- Izzy tables w/laminate markerboard surface

- Wood Chairs: VS

Fixed seating: Custom by Hire Nelson (library and corridor)

Upholstery: Maharam (varied types, used on majority of furniture throughout building including upholstered millwork items), Boreal

Shades: Mechoshade

LCDs: InFocus



Interior ambient lighting: Pinnacle–EDGE (typical classroom/corridor), Barco (toilet rooms)

Downlights: Philips Lightolier USA Illumination

Specialty: Delray Lighting Inc – Cylindro (dining), Artemide and 3form-LightArt (library)


- Winona: roof play area

- Hydrel: ground uplight

- Lucifer Lighting Co.: Soffit Downlights

Dimming System or other lighting controls: Lutron



Elevators/Escalators: Thyssen Krup



Drinking Fountains, Bottle Fillers: Filtrine

Toilets: American Standard with Sloan Solar flush 1.28 gpf

Water Heaters: AO Smith Condensing Water Heaters



Energy management or building automation system: Distech


Other unique products that contribute to sustainability:

District Cooling Chilled Water System: Enwave (formerly Thermal Chicago)


Add any additional building components or special equipment that made a significant contribution to this project:

Playground Equipment: Kompen

LCDS: In Focus touch screen with Windows 10 application and Mondo Overlay