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Rethinking school design

A class apart

Architects from Denmark to Japan are rethinking school design to foster new ways of learning. John McDermott absorbs their lessons

Architects from Denmark to Japan are rethinking school design to foster new ways of learning. John McDermott absorbs their lessons

John McDermott | April/May 2017

Ørestad College in Copenhagen is not your average school. Its vast open space with multiple overlapping layers creates a variety of nooks and crannies, making it easier for pupils to find their own way of working and to collaborate with peers. “They can be inspired by each other as well as by the teachers,” says Kim Herforth Nielsen, founding partner of 3XN, the architecture firm that designed the school.

Before the Industrial Revolution children were educated at home, in one-room schoolhouses – or not at all. As mass schooling started in the 19th century, architects designed utilitarian classrooms with rows of desks. Schools looked like factories. Before the second world war European modernists like Walter Gropius and Richard Neutra led the “open-air” school movement, which emphasised fresh air, daylight, outdoor learning and freedom for pupils.

But in the second half of the 20th century a lack of money and a lot of children led to a fall in building standards in rich countries. Prefabricated buildings, supposedly temporary, became permanent. Windowless classrooms with fluorescent lighting and air conditioning became more common – as did mould and toxins.

The top set
MAIN IMAGE Ørestad College, whose architects have an enlightened view of the classroom. ABOVE Burntwood School in London, winner of the Stirling prize in 2015

Fortunately there is now a growing understanding of how buildings shape learning, for good and ill. Studies have found that lousy test results are associated with classrooms that are noisy, hot, poorly ventilated and full of artificial light. As a result, there has been a new focus on good, imaginative design for schools.

In 2015 Britain’s most prestigious architecture gong, the Stirling prize, went to Burntwood School in London. Accepting the award Paul Monaghan, director of Allford Hall Monaghan Morris (AHMM), the architecture firm that designed Burntwood, said that schools can and should be more than just functional buildings. “They need to elevate the aspirations of children, teachers and the wider community.”

The customers seem happy. When Olivia Farah, a sixth-form pupil, walks through the gates at Burntwood she feels “a sense of grace”. She says that the natural light that pours through its oversized windows helps her focus. She likes the wide walkways that avert “corridor crushes” which can injure smaller pupils.

Other efforts to make pupils feel comfortable are found across the world. Hazelwood School in Glasgow, Scotland, for pupils who are blind, deaf or have learning disabilities, has tactile and fragrant walls to help the visually impaired get around. Hakusui Nursery in Chiba, Japan, resembles wooden houses in the local farming community, to minimise the feeling of disruption when children leave home.

Home from home
Chiba’s nursery, designed to remind children of their own houses

And while the design of 19th-century schools reflected a model of education where stern teachers talked and passive pupils learnt by rote, contemporary designs fit with new pedagogical approaches which claim to put the pupil in charge. “Learning styles have physical counterparts,” says Carsten Primdahl, co-founder of CEBRA, a Danish architecture firm. Even simple playgrounds with slides, swings and roundabouts are out of fashion. Instead there are more “abstract playgrounds”, says Primdahl, with odd-shaped blocks and frames which give children more scope to imagine their own games and to make their own rules in collaboration with peers.

In Slovenia, the Šmartno Timeshare Kindergarten is designed to encourage learning through play. Children have two to three hours per day where they choose what to do. They are helped by the nursery’s open-floor area with its eight glazed rooms connected by sliding doors. The space can be adapted by the children to fit their games. There are 65 possible “activity corners” for children. And just for fun there is a red slide that makes for an alternative to walking downstairs.

Learning through play
The red slide at Šmartno Timeshare Kindergarten in Slovenia 

CEBRA’s forthcoming “Smart School” in Irkutsk, Russia, also tries to encourage pupils to spend more time outside classrooms. It is designed as a ring of buildings enclosing a meadow. Rather than dividing the school into subject departments, the architects have designed dozens of adaptable communal spaces. Pupils will be able to study in areas that fit their “individual learning style”, says Primdahl. Some will prefer the atrium with background noise, some a bench in the meadow, and others quiet nooks off a corridor.

Most schools cannot spend lots of money on a new building, and some of the pedagogical ideas behind these new buildings are unproven. But innovation needn’t be costly or radical.

Consider those refuges of naughtiness – school toilets. Since washrooms are often out of the view of teachers, toilets are a common location for bullying. But not at Reach Academy in London. Ed Vainker, its principal, is proud of its loos. Situated off the middle of a corridor are two rows of unisex cubicles. In between the rows is a line of easily visible basins. It is hard for tormentors to get away scot-free. Even simple design principles can be applied cheaply to great effect to improve pupils’ experience of school.

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