Campus Scolaire Kinneksbond
I am often asked the question, does good design in school settings aid the well being of children and teachers?
An introduction by Mark Dudek, Education design expert
It is an aspiration which is hard to prove definitively, however the discipline of Environmental
Psychology and some of its concepts is a useful aid to understanding more deeply the potential for well designed school spaces to aid child development.
Having spent some time, many years ago, observing the behaviour of the Siamang, (which looks like a larger, black gibbon), in a Malaysian jungle, I was most interested to observe the stable family group and its interactions. Spending ones days beneath such a family one quickly becomes aware of the infant’s working through the tasks of early childhood. Leaving the comforting immediacy of the parent the infant has to work out its physical capacities and the effects of its movement on the perceived properties of the local world; although still being suckled, it is testing the properties of things encountered, what tastes good, what is to be avoided, what you can expect to be where (water trapped in tree ferns; stinging ants in a marching column for example). As the infant grows more confident and adept at mobility, there come issues of navigation and location, away from the familiar and comforting, and rapid returning if danger threatens.
If Siamang and human infants have in common a need to learn the dimensions of space; testing physical and cognitive capacities against its challenges; and wayfinding in socio-physical space; then one can also see that for the human infant, the elementary school, poses similar albeit more complex tasks. With its larger numbers of individuals to negotiate, and greater range of resources both to use and to dispute, levels of social complexity expand logarithmically. However life in the canopy still seems somewhat similar to that in the elementary school in that the physical space available to both species is the most important dimension of education’s key activity, social interaction. Put simply, the successful school is about constructing and elucidating transactions between people and places within the framework of a safe yet challenging environment, (‘transactions’ because the relationship works both ways: as Winston Churchill said we shape our places and they shape us).
If the analogy is applied to the new School Centre of Koenigsbund in Mamer, we can see a similar respect for intricate social groupings where high quality design enables these complex transactions to take place constantly and effectively. This is achieved by creating a spatial hierarchy where the whole school community is broken down into smaller schools which are in turn structured into age related classrooms which are analogious to Siamung ‘families’, socially extended yet safe and secure for those who require it. The separate school buildings are ordered like a string of pearls along a pedestrian promenade, each with its own entrance. Each school is set within its own secure plot, the jungle clearing you might say, so that the various family groups can explore and extend their cognitive capacities initially within the confines of the homebase, thereafter as confidence grows venturing further afield, to transact within the wider school environment.
It is the design of that wider environment which makes these new schools so special. Whilst the classrooms function as efficient home-bases, with cool acoustics and high quality environmental engineering, the areas beyond are equally weighted as places in their own right within which children are comfortable. So often the modern school idea is based on a pragmatic sequence of identical classrooms connected by corridors, which have nothing more characterful than their functional role as circulation routes. Here link spaces are extensions, spaces in their own right, so that children finding their way towards lets say the toilets, are calmed and informed by the more public spaces, which contract or expand to create something akin to an urban street-scape, ordered yet varied. There are wider chill-out areas tastefully decorated with children’s art-work and images of Sally Arnold and Nico Thurm etched onto large glazing panels. It is a mature and articulate spatial language.
The palette of materials used inside are chosen as much for their tactility as their timeless appearance. Raw red brick, warm oak panelling and oak seating plinths, all subtly lit to heighten interior structural clarity. These are finishes which will withstand the boisterous attention of future generations of children. Surfaces are good to the touch, they feel and even smell distinctive, as children test the properties of things, encountering other children and teachers as they go, navigating their way around the school by touch and smell as well as sight; just as the Siamung would use the patina of a distinctive tree bark as an orientation marker within their jungle canopy, similarly children would sense the tactility of these natural materials to aid their own wayfinding around this calming environment.
All buildings at the School Centre of Koenigsbund are designed to be extendable, flexing to future needs as communities grow. This is deliberately so as it is anticipated that Mamer will continue to expand from its village origins into a large new-town suburb with housing streets under construction all around the school campus. Yet the school buildings do not seek to dominate the landscape, rather their organic low-scale forms merge comfortably into an already lush landscaped park. With its tapestry of pedestrian and cycle routes criss-crossing the school campus it has the contemporary feel of a garden city. A loop road permits school buses, and other vehicles to enter the site to drop children off onto a raised pavement platform which aims to prioritise pedestrian and cycle traffic above that of the car. With safe segregated routes radiating out into the housing streets, children are encouraged to come to school by bike. It is a campus designed as far as it is practicable, to be open and democratic.
Here, planning is not like most school environment planning, which sets out to defuse and simplify spatial complexity. Where a bank or an office building promotes a sort of cool detachment, a school, in dealing with crowds of people, must celebrate this inherent theatricality in its common spaces, yet at the same time provide a robust and legible structure which the users will understand. It is no easy task to design for learning. Here the architects have negotiated that subtle balance so that a timeless simplicity informs the architecture in its every detail, whilst at the same time more contemporary almost urban qualities are at work in the planning and overall organisation. The end result is a mature education environment which enables transactions between people and places to fulfill the most important of role of education, social interaction. Clearly THE ARCHITECTS have carefully shaped this place and what they have created will shape generations of children to come. It is on every level a beacon for the future.
Mark Dudek is an education design expert and author of “Schools and Kindergartens, a Design Manual.”