Philadelphia Architectural Firm H2L2/NELSON Designs International Schools for World Thinkers



Kait Lavinder, for GPA -- When an education consultant required an architect to translate his ideas into architectural terms, he found Barry Eiswerth. The relationship produced the winning contract for the Cairo American College competition twenty years ago. That success catalyzed Eiswerth, a Principal at H2L2/NELSON, and his architectural/design firm based in Philadelphia, PA into the international marketplace.

Photo of: Barry Eiswerth

In the heart of Old City sits H2L2/NELSON’s home base; but the company has offices in 5 countries. Around 70 international schools later, H2L2/NELSON is now recognized for designing buildings that are conducive to cultivating a global student body. Many of these schools partake in a program called the International Baccalaureate (IB.) In Geneva, Switzerland in 1968, a group of teachers at the International School of Geneva recognized the need for a program that prepares internationally mobile students for higher education. What began as the IB Diploma Programme (DP) for high school students transformed into a three-part series encompassing students aged 3 to 19: the Primary Years Programme (PYP), the Middle Years Programme (MYP), and the DP. The IB strives for international-mindedness in its rigorous academic training, and it currently operates in 145 countries. The essence of its purpose, as outlined in the IB mission statement, is “to develop inquiring, knowledgeable and caring young people who help to create a better and more peaceful world through intercultural understanding and respect.” To educate global citizens requires not only a broad and difficult curriculum, but also a comfortable space to expand upon that education. This is where H2L2/NELSON’s expertise lies.

Donna Zalecky is a Project Manager at H2L2/NELSON who works exclusively with facilities master planning for international and higher education campuses. She says the specific qualities the IB aims to instill in students must be supported by the facilities: “When you’re looking at designing an IB school, the IB curriculum has a whole series of attributes or characteristics that they’re looking to develop as part of the student learner profile.” Elaborating, she explains that drama, science, and art spaces all become very important in serving a pre-defined curriculum.

The DaVinci Building at Frankfurt International School in Oberursel, Germany is a grand example of how the design of IB campuses is essential to encouraging an IB learning environment. The driving philosophy is that collaboration fosters innovation. Various subjects ranging from mathematics to music to design technology coalesce under one roof to form a multi-disciplinary space that surrounds a central atrium. Here, high levels of activity and student interaction cause the area to constantly buzz with energy.

Photo of: DaVinci Building at Frankfurt International School

Jakarta International School is another vibrant pre-K through 12th grade campus. With almost 3000 students, it is one of the largest schools in the world and one of H2L2/NELSON’s long-term projects. The highly regarded reputation of this IB school has acted as a selling point for business people weighing the pros and cons of moving their families with young children to the Far East.

Supplementing a demanding course of study in the IB program is a linguistic component: Eiswerth notes most IB students speak at least 2 or 3 languages. While working on the American Embassy School, New Delhi, India, this element made itself amazingly apparent to Eiswerth. He tells a story of how he used to eat lunch in the student center and hear a multitude of diverse languages. This was not due to language barriers, but rather manifested from a fascination with linguistics; the students would seamlessly speak to each other in numerous languages without missing a beat.

Photo of: American Embassy School Blueprint

Zalecky goes one step further and compares a speaker event at The Graded School of São Paulo with a United Nations conference. Addressing a student body clad in headphones, the Brazilian speaker’s sentences were translated in real time for every young person who lacked fluency in Portuguese. These are the kinds of individuals IB schools cultivate: people who are “ready for the world and able to relate globally,” in Eiswerth’s words.

H2L2/NELSON also designs international schools that are not IB accredited, but that encourage the IB values. Colégio Bolivar, for instance, is planning possibly South America’s only STEAM+ Building for grades K – 12, a planned curriculum outgrowth extending from their highly successful Early Childhood Reggio Emilia program. STEAM+ derives from STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics), with the “A” standing for “Arts.” With increasing interest from not only administrators but also the student body, the prospect of incorporating more entities into Colégio Bolivar’s new complex seemed feasible. Eiswerth says he believes an enlightened board and head of school is key to this kind of integrated development and the promotion of an IB-like culture.

IB schools are not only popular in foreign countries; many are dispersed throughout the United States. However, Eiswerth comments, “The American schools are just waking up to it.” Becoming part of the IB community is a massive commitment and calls for the acceptance of a unique worldview.

Greater Philadelphia has exponentially advocated the IB worldview over the past 30 years. Eiswerth hypothesizes that Philadelphia’s recent intensified recognition as an international city dates back to the celebration of the bicentennial in 1976. Through commemoration of the city’s history, Philadelphia showcased its beauty and the powerful assets it contains. In Eiswerth’s opinion, Philadelphia holds great potential to become a world-class destination; now, the focus must be placed on nurturing it. Eiswerth, who is a Global Philadelphia Association (GPA) board member, mentions that organizations like GPA are leading this effort.

IB schools proliferate in the Greater Philadelphia area from year to year because as both Eiswerth and Zalecky agree, acclaimed international education is a resource the city is expected to offer. With Philadelphia’s growing position on the international scale, the IB is no longer merely a need for foreign families relocating to the area. Instead, it is an assumption that Philadelphia is IB equipped.

Many schools in the Main Line are conducting research on the IB. Harriton High School of Lower Merion School District has held IB status since July 2000 and was the second school in the Philadelphia region to gain the IB title, after Cherry Hill High School West. Pan American Academy Charter School, located in North Philly, was recently named Philadelphia’s first IB elementary school.

Two decades of designing international schools and actively participating in the global community have placed H2L2/NELSON on the forefront of international awareness. Zalecky expresses her belief that connectivity is key: “I love the IB approach and how it integrates students as complete learners.” H2L2/NELSON and the IB program integrate Philadelphia with other cities around the world.