It’s not just what you learn; it’s also where you learn it. From a school that’s open to the elements to a curvaceous nursery, architecture can help to give children a head start in life. We visit three educational institutions with designs that pass with flying colours.
The 21st-century school aims to be more than a mere space for study. A shift away from rigid education models has led to curriculums being updated and a novel approach to the architecture of schools themselves. Design adjustments, such as increasing natural light and air flow in classrooms, have been linked with improvements in teaching and learning.
To explore how the design of schools can enhance children’s educational experiences, monocle travelled to Morocco, Italy and Lithuania to speak with the architects and educators building inspiring institutions.
In the bright, early morning sun, monocle drives down one of Rabat’s broad, palm-lined avenues among the embassies and villas of the city’s Souissi neighbourhood. Guiding the way is the architectural team behind the city’s newly finished, modernist-inspired Jacques Chirac School.
As with many capital cities, Rabat’s structures lean towards the impressively monumental. However, architect Driss Kettani explains that he and his associates wanted to contribute to the fabric of the city by creating a civic building with “a sense of presence and its own identity” that was decidedly not a monument. “You have to try to create a space that has a kind of soul, that conveys lightness and joy,” Kettani says of his collaborations on school design with fellow architects Saad El Kabbaj and Mohamed Amine Siana, who all met while attending the National School of Architecture in Rabat.
The trio designed notable Moroccan institutions such as the Higher School of Technology in Guelmim, which was influenced by the mud-brick constructions typical of the country’s southern regions. In 2018 they were invited by a group of private investors to submit a proposal to design a new academy. Though Kettani, El Kabbaj and Siana each maintain individual offices within a broader shared studio in nearby Casablanca, the team has made a habit of joining forces on larger commissions over the past 18 years.
“We sit around the table and sketch together,” says Kettani. “We all get involved in every part of the design process; none of us is limited to a particular task. Any idea we present to the group has to be rational and very well justified. If the idea is weak, it won’t convince the other two. At the end of the road, only the best ideas survive this process.” The team feels that their ability to draw on the power of collective thinking while retaining each member’s individuality added to the strength of their winning proposal.
As we arrive at the school gates, Kettani further contextualises the building’s bold geometric forms within the cityscape. “We tried to create a sculptural feeling,” he says. “We adopted features from Rabat’s schools from the 1960s and 1970s, such as the use of white stucco, sober forms, horizontal lines and a ground floor made from stone.” The team believes that combining traditional Moroccan architectural features with more modern influences, such as striking angular elements inspired by the work of French-Moroccan architect Jean-François Zevaco, leads to designs that create a heightened sense of belonging for the school’s pupils.
The Jacques Chirac School is a private institution that is part of Agency for French Education Abroad, an international network. Its lead investor, Princess Lalla Soukaina, granddaughter of the late King Hassan II of Morroco, felt that it was essential that the school reflected the country’s culture – and for good reason. Even though the institution operates as a multicultural and multilingual learning environment, the bulk of the school’s students are Moroccan. Within a space the size of two football pitches, the three-storey building comprises a primary and secondary school for 1,100 pupils.
We enter the campus via the southwest entrance, which is used by the younger children. Wide rectangular columns covered in light-blue zellige tiles, a type of colourful mosaic, punctuate the entrance with their shine and texture. It was important for the team of Moroccan architects to include the hand-moulded, glazed clay tiles to highlight the use of traditional local materials. “People were quite astonished when we decided to use zellige,” says Kettani. “But then they saw how the touch of colour brought balance. In the end, it’s one of the features that they love the most.”
Though children from the ages of two to 16 share the building, the creation of separate entrances for primary and secondary-school pupils facilitates the management of traffic flows at peak times. The school’s interior unfolds a bit like a riad, the traditional Moroccan house built around a central courtyard. Kettani explains that the building’s courtyard is a large, flexible, “non-space” that opens to the sky. Children’s laughter fills the air. Fabric strung across this outdoor space provides shade during the day’s hottest hours, while also continuing the architectural play of light and shadow.
Headteacher Carole Soulagnes gives monocle a warm welcome in the courtyard. She leads us up one of the school’s airy staircases to a large terrace on the first floor. As we overlook the institution’s grounds from this higher vantage point, Soulagnes explains how the architectural “precision” of the school has made it into a “living space”.
“When I walk through the school, on any given day, sometimes I’ll just stop and marvel,” she says. “I’ll look up and find a new perspective that is so striking that I feel the need to take a picture. It’s always different; the white against the blue sky is always shifting,” she adds, before explaining that the building has a peaceful atmosphere. “Parents respond to that equilibrium when they visit. They feel that the children are in a safe space, like a cocoon. Not too big and not too tight of a space.”
The architectural team is relieved to receive this feedback. “A huge issue for us was the density, because we had a lot of spaces to include in this project,” says Kettani. In addition to classrooms, the design had to accommodate a 250-seat auditorium, indoor and outdoor sports facilities, a cafeteria, a library and administrative offices. “Luckily, we received a very precise brief,” says Kettani. “The client did a thorough job in advance of the call for competition entries and we ended up having a very positive collaboration. They were very respectful and would listen to our opinions.”
In developing a vision for the school, the architects also carefully considered the teaching objectives. In response to a desire expressed by the Jacques Chirac School’s team to have a technologically connected school, projectors were included in the design for classrooms along with brise-soleils on exterior windows for managing light and acoustics. A wish to have an “open” school was achieved by including lots of windows and outdoor areas. Cross-ventilation systems were developed to help to regulate temperatures without consuming large amounts of energy.
Architects Kettani, El Kabbaj and Siana are also educators themselves. They teach at university level and find it an activity that enriches their architectural practice. “Teaching forces you to deconstruct the mechanisms behind your work,” says Kettani. “You learn a lot yourself from having to redo the process in your head.”
But perhaps the biggest testament to the team’s ability to successfully distil its design vision, has come in the form of a repeat commission. The Jacques Chirac School recently purchased a plot of land next to the current site and has entrusted Kettani, El Kabbaj and Amine Siana with the task of designing a new lycée (secondary school), which will be fully independent from the original structure and allow for a further 300 pupils to attend. “It’s important to have continuity,” says Soulagnes. “The educational project is a continuum and so the physical school has to be a continuum as well.”
Before heading off, we ask Soulagnes whether she believes that the children have been influenced in some way by studying in what she refers to as “the most beautiful school I’ve seen”. She smiles mischievously. “A lot of them want to become designers,” she says. “My 10-year-old son, who also attends the school, told me yesterday, ‘I’d like to become an architect.’”
What better legacy could the school and its architectural team hope for? Not only have they added to the fabric of Rabat but they have motivated several of its youngest minds to aim one day to do the same.
“The first thing I did when we won the contract was to think back to my own nursery school years,” says architect Mario Cucinella of his design approach for the Asilo Nido Iride – or Iris Nursery School – in the Italian town of Guastalla. As it happens, the nursery school building of Cucinella’s early childhood was designed by rationalist architect Giuseppe Vaccaro, famed for his work on Naples’ central post office in the 1930s. “You don’t have many memories from when you were four years old – but, wow, those first impressions are so important,” says the 62-year-old Sicilian-born architect whose eponymous studio has offices in Bologna and Milan.
For Cucinella, a personal architectural connection to this Vaccaro-designed kindergarten led him to appreciate that architecture can leave an impression on young minds. “I thought, ‘We must be careful with this project because a building will not physically move but it will certainly travel through the imagination of a child and remain in their memory for decades.’”
So the challenge of designing a structure that would capture the imagination of its young users brought Cucinella to Guastalla. The earthquake that struck the small agricultural community and the surrounding Emilia-Romagna region in northern Italy in 2012, had pushed the local council to open a competition for the design of a new nursery, which Cucinella won in 2014.
Luckily for the children of Guastalla, Cucinella’s musings on architecture and space, seen through the mind of a youngster, drew him to a classic Italian children’s novel. “I was struck with the image of the space inside the belly of a whale in Pinocchio, when he and Geppetto were swallowed up,” he says. “I wanted to use that as the basis of an unconventional spatial concept.”
Local and less iconic images also inspired his concept. “I asked myself, ‘What does a child see in Guastalla every day?’ All around there is the flat horizontal line of the plain, punctured by the repetitive rhythm of poplar trees,” he says. This starting point led to a design of 50 wooden frames, which are lined up and evenly spaced apart to form the structure of a low, rectangular building. The resulting cross-section creates an interior void, which calls to mind the ribs of a whale and, when viewed from the outside, the series of vertical timber elements look like tree trunks. “This allows children to imagine that they could be anywhere in the world when they come here,” says Cucinella.
The architect points out that this empathetic, child-centric way of thinking differs from the childcare and educational buildings most of us are used to. “Schools can be so ugly,” he says. “They’re often boxes with corridors and classrooms, and with a square window in the middle of the wall.”
The architect did not have to look far in terms of adopting an educational philosophy that supported this approach. The idea of “architecture as the third educator” originated among the teachers and architects in Reggio Emilia, the provincial capital a 40-minute drive from Guastalla. From the 1960s onwards, internationally renowned local educators, such as Carla Rinaldi and Loris Malaguzzi (whose educational philosophy became known as the Reggio Emilia approach) were convinced that the design of an educational environment plays a crucial role in shaping the learning experience of children. If teachers are the first educators and parents the second, then environment is seen as being the next most significant influence on children’s learning, exploration, imagination and interactions.
A critical factor in designing the kindergarten in Guastalla was working with key stakeholders: teachers, children and parents were all involved, says Cucinella. Did he go as far as to organise a focus group for toddlers? “In effect, yes, but it was more like a test run,” he says, recalling a morning, prior to opening, when the town’s children were invited into the space and explored it with only a little supervision. “Of course, the children immediately went for the most dangerous elements. They ignored their toys and found the best surfaces to clamber up onto and slide down,” says Cucinella, referring to the polished wooden half-pipe-like slides that the architects created between the timber frames of the nursery.
Since the completion of the Guastalla nursery in 2015, the project, like its students, has blossomed; its timber walls have developed a patina of deep, worn and welcoming brown, and the surrounding landscape, designed by Marilena Baggio has matured to provide a verdant garden for children to play in. Cucinella’s portfolio has grown too, with the architect taking on an ever-increasing number of projects that seem to be growing in dimension, from a university campus in Rome to towering corporate headquarters in Milan. “The intensity of creativity, for me, is not dependent on the size of the project,” he says. A child’s experience of architecture, according to Cucinella, is just as important as anyone else’s.
Having grown up in Lithuania, architect Gilma Teodora Gylyte, co-founder of Do Architects, was familiar with austere, Soviet-style kindergartens that can be found throughout central and eastern Europe. So when she was asked to design an extension and breathe new life into the Peledziukas kindergarten in Pagiriai, a small village south of Vilnius, she wanted to completely overhaul the existing structure. “In Baltic states like Lithuania, we’ve inherited these grey buildings that I believe are a form of spatial propaganda,” says Gylyte. “These spaces were built to prevent people from connecting with each other and after we gained independence in 1990, we never changed the layouts or the structures, we just plastered over with new façades.”
The Peledziukas kindergarten dates to the 1980s and follows a typical, Soviet “H” typology, with two annexes connected by a slim corridor. This layout serves a school system wherein each child is assigned to a group and rarely meets other children, let alone socialises with them, beyond their classmates. To facilitate this system, buildings throughout former ussr states have been designed with multiple entrances that stream the children into their classrooms and prevent groups (and by extension, parents) from mixing with each other. Even breaks outside in these sorts of buildings are usually taken separately, with teachers leading their group of kindergarteners to an often uninspiring concrete area for their allocated recreation time.
The first thing Gylyte did to break from this architectural convention was to establish a single entrance that leads to a gated courtyard where children can now play together. An unexpected but welcome knock-on effect has been that the space has become a communal hub for the teachers, parents and the village. “This courtyard has changed everybody’s routines,” says Gylyte with pride. “It has become a cultural centre and meeting point for the town.” She then made sure to include a roof terrace and a green space with plenty of trees. Inside, wood-panelled corridors have been expanded and the rooms made multifunctional, with curtains that can be drawn to temporarily change room layouts, allowing spaces to function as a playroom, classroom or dining hall. By doing this, Gylyte has increased communal areas, doubling the space for socialisation. “Previously, the event hall would be unlocked for Christmas celebrations and not much else,” says Gylyte. Now the children regularly perform dances, plays or songs for their parents and teachers in the courtyard, on the wooden stairs. When the new kindergarten was unveiled in 2021, the children wrote and sang a song about wide windows and high doors as a tribute to their new surroundings.
Since completing the project, one of the nicest changes in human relationships is between the school’s cooks and the children. In the redesign, Gylyte insisted on making the cooks visible and moving them into an open kitchen with windows for the kindergartners to see into. “Children want to see everything,” she says. “They like to know how pancakes are made, for example. And now the cooks are flourishing: they’ve started trying new recipes and baking. Neighbours even drop by to buy pastries from the school.”
This example of rehabilitation of Soviet architecture is part of a project that Gylyte is working on that looks at the Cold War architectural legacy in central and eastern Europe. This year, Gylyte is travelling to Ukraine as part of Rebuild the Wonderful, an initiative she set up that looks to how the country might be able to transform Soviet schools after the war with Russia using five models for transforming more than 100 damaged institutions. “Architecture is powerful. Spatial transformations change habits, routines and lives,” says Gylyte. “This goes beyond design and aesthetics. The transformation of a building is also a transformation in our heads.”