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Depicting schools in films is easy. They feature strip lighting, mile-long corridors, hard surfaces and cavernous spaces that echo the noise of a thousand feet and voices. They are rectangular blocks, brick and mortar incarnations of “the institution” designed to oppress not impress, places of indoctrination more than education. And this popular depiction isn’t just a Hollywood fantasy; it’s what most people remember from childhood. Compared with other types of public building, schools have remained in this institutional design rut for a long time.

Municipal governments deemed them unworthy of investment in good quality design, materials and furnishings – and so schools have been slow to capture the imagination of progressive architects.

Still today the attitude prevails among governments, local and national, that spending money on school architecture is an unnecessary luxury. Pleading national poverty, Michael Gove, the UK’s education secretary, last year scrapped his predecessor’s €62bn Building Schools for the Future scheme, which had planned rebuilding of over 700 schools nationally.

But the tide is turning, led by countries that understand the correlation between good schools and good education statistics. It’s no surprise that Finland is at the fore. Walk into a Finnish school and there you find natural materials, good lighting, beautiful furniture and a thoughtful approach to spatial layout. They conspire to create an environment that feels less like a prison and more like a building that has been invested in, to inspire comfort and respect in those who spend their formative years there. Australia has followed suit spending AU$16.2bn (€12.4bn) on a programme called Building the Education Revolution, understanding that raising the quality of schools means raising the quality of education and hence the future workforce.

In this report on school architecture, Monocle takes in one recent example from Finland, a community lifeline “mega school” in Cartagena, Colombia, proving that good school architecture isn’t just the preserve of wealthy First World countries, and a new breed of kindergarten projects in Japan, which are designed to feel more like homes than schools.

Each of these examples dispels the misconception that good school architecture is a dispensable luxury. On the contrary, it’s a necessary investment – both human and financial – and it’s a lesson to which more governments need to pay attention to.


The quality establishment

Kirkkojärvi School

Espoo, Finland

Verstas Architects

Kirkkojärvi in Espoo, by Finnish practice Verstas Architects, illustrates why Finnish school design is so successful. It is specifically focused to make pupils feel valued while making best possible use of its surroundings. This plot is divided into two schoolyards that are positioned to maximise the time the 770 pupils spend in the sunlight. From inside there are stunning views out across Kirkkojärvi Park and into other parts of the building.

Verstas has used mainly natural materials, which, together with large glass walls, give the school a feel of quality and openness. Oak, designed to age well, is used throughout. Different layering techniques have been used on the exposed brick walls that bring a more human scale to big surfaces and give the building its character.

“The unique starting point for Kirkkojärvi was that it be organised much like a city,” says Väinö Nikkilä, project architect and partner at Verstas Architects. The spaces are organised into public, semi-public and private. Inside there is a big central space, much like the Greek “agora”, a number of smaller lobbies and private classrooms optimised for the teaching of specific subjects. The gymnasium doubles as a theatre and opens out into the main lobby and canteen areas. Wooden furniture, made in Finland, is used throughout. In short, Kirkkojärvi is a building that reflects the quality of Finnish education. It is a place where it’s a pleasure to spend time.

The influence of key figures, namely Reino Tapaninen from the Ministry of Education, has been instrumental in championing good-quality learning environments. In his Comparative Study of 18 Finnish School Buildings, Tapaninen outlined his concept of the “future school”. Another key ingredient in promoting good school design in Finland has been the government’s deregulation of school architecture and the introduction of a competition system, so new ideas and younger practices can emerge.

Projected demographic trends suggest that Finland will not be lacking in ethnic diversity in the future. Multiculturalism is also embraced and the gymnasiums in many schools, including Kirkkojärvi, double as collective spaces for performing arts, encouraging the integration of students from different cultural backgrounds.

Why it works

Materials: The quality of the materials and construction – as well as the furnishings and fittings – is extremely high. This is a school built to last.

Orientation: The school makes the best possible use of the site – the two school yards are positioned to maximise sunlight for all pupils.

Fresh thinking: Finland’s competition system allows for new ideas to be realised.

Colour: The colour scheme is subtle and reflects the natural building materials. Stronger colours are used as signals to help navigation.

Social space: Kirkkojärvi’s gymnasium doubles as a performance space and encourages children to mix.


Long live the revolution

When the global financial crisis hit Australia in 2008 they had much the same neo-Keynesian response as the other western powers: throw money at it. Unlike the EU and the US, however, Australia sits on some of the world’s largest natural resources. Better still, they happen to have a neighbour up the street – China – who wants to buy them all from them. So when the time came to dole out stimulus cash, the fighting was over where it went, not whether it should be spent.

The big winner was education. Out of an overall stimulus package of AU$42bn (€32bn), Canberra carved out A$16.2bn for a set of programmes aimed at modernising its ageing schools called Building the Education Revolution (BER).

A whopping 24,000 projects have been broken down into categories: modernising primary schools; building new science buildings or retrofitting ageing premises; and general refurbishment.

The BER package makes up the single largest portion of Australian stimulus spending. And with full employment, Canberra must be hoping BER will provide the skilled labourers desperately needed to keep the economy moving forward.

Why it works:

Materials: A combination of low-cost, long-life materials was used to build the school. These are easily cleaned and serviced.

Sense of community: The site is open to the community and used as a space for public activities.

Infrastructure: Its construction had a ripple effect on the surrounding areas. School construction meant public infrastructure was built for families that used to live in shantytowns.

Environment: The design takes advantage of the environment, harnessing the wind to keep the school fresh.

Local flavour: Local workers helped build the school, creating a bond between community and the building from day one.


The community lifeline

Institución Educativa Flor del Campo

Cartagena de Indias, Colombia

Giancarlo Mazzanti & Felipe Mesa

Before the Flor del Campo school was completed in 2010, 1,400 local students attended classes in schools spread across the Bolívar province or under makeshift tents constantly hit by the Caribbean sun, with temperatures of up to 40C. “Sometimes the kids complain now because the library gets too cold,” says architect Giancarlo Mazzanti, happily.

Mazzanti, alongside Felipe Mesa, devised and built Cartagena’s first “mega-school”, the name given to government-commissioned public schools built by Colombia’s top architects. “The kids’ lives changed completely – now they can log on to the internet and read books comfortably in the air-conditioned library even if outside the sun is blazing,” says Mazzanti.

The school spreads over 6,170 sq m, linking the Flor del Campo, Colombiatón and Ciudad del Bicentenario neighbourhoods – improvised quarters built by the Colombian government to relocate slum-dwellers. With the school’s construction, built with the help of locals, the wider area benefited from the installation of electricity and a sewer system, plus paved roads and pavements.

The duo used concrete as the main material for the school’s structure, choosing a prefabricated fretwork that surrounds the building and takes advantage of the wind, keeping the school’s communal areas ventilated. The shared spaces are covered with a low-maintenance blue polymer and artificial grass laid out across the playgrounds creates a smooth area for the kids to play, without risking bruised knees.

A total of 40 classrooms, a chemistry and physics laboratory, a computer room, nursery and a sports ground complete the premises. After classes and at weekends the site is used for community events such as bazaars and dance performances. “The building’s conditions create the ideal educational environment – the space was built to develop and foster the children’s learning,” explains Mazzanti, “but it’s also a place that has multiple uses. It’s a landmark for the locals, a building that generates pride and ownership among people that barely had anything when they moved here.”

Why it works:

Materials: A combination of low-cost, long-life materials was used to build the school. These are easily cleaned and serviced.

Sense of community: The site is open to the community and used as a space for public activities.

Infrastructure: Its construction had a ripple effect on the surrounding areas. School construction meant public infrastructure was built for families that used to live in shantytowns.

Environment: The design takes advantage of the environment, harnessing the wind to keep the school fresh.

Local flavour: Local workers helped build the school, creating a bond between community and the building from day one.


School regeneration

This summer, work has begun on transforming a 10-storey, 20,000 sq m former industrial building, adjacent to the High Line park in Manhattan, into the first flagship for Avenues – a school company that over the next decade will open 20 or more locations globally.

Focused on fostering a sense of global citizenship, Avenues New York will open its doors in the autumn of 2012. Each student will be fluent in at least one foreign language on graduation and be encouraged to transfer between future campuses.

Avenues has set a new standard for school design, combining the knowledge of architect Brad Perkins with New York firm Bonetti/ Kozerski. “The initial design brief given to us had one strong message – the school would be lead by design,” says Domenic Kozerski of Bonetti/ Kozerski. “Our goal is simply to make spaces that feel good and leave children with a lasting impression of a good educational environment.” — aes


Strong foundations

Umenosato and Wada kindergartens


Moo Architect Workshop

Two years ago, when the headmaster of a kindergarten and nursery school hired Yoshiji Takehara to design a new building, Takehara decided on a contrarian approach. He would give the school lots of “wasted space” – alcoves, cubbyholes and meandering hallways.

His aim was to make the children feel as if they were at home. “Kids find comfort in the in-between spaces that adults have no use for,” says Takehara, who heads Moo Architect Workshop in Osaka. “By having these hidden places to explore, they feel that it belongs to them.”

The idea came from Takehara’s three decades of building homes and watching how children play. Too often, he explains, builders make homes and schools that resist wear and tear, and can be easily cleaned, but aren’t child-friendly.

Some Japanese parents would disagree with Takehara’s view. In the country’s highly competitive education system, parents who want their children to attend an elite university care more about finding a well-regarded kindergarten with a strong curriculum. Reputation and curriculum have been, and still are, the benchmark. Only recently have some kindergartens and nursery schools started to think more seriously about architecture. Part of this development is competition: with Japanese couples having fewer children (or none) the pool of children has shrunk and schools are having to work harder at marketing themselves. Part of it is also awareness that children seem more energetic at schools built from natural materials that aren’t just a soulless concrete box.

Umenosato Nursery School in Takasaki city, northwest of Tokyo, was completed in March. It’s a two-storey building that could easily pass as someone’s home. Inside, columns rise from the floor and intersect overhead beams in a complex latticework of Japanese cypress. Sunlight pours in through cutouts in the ceiling and wooden-framed windows are low to the floor so children can peer outside. Underfoot, the floors are a mix of cherry, walnut, oak and beech. And there are plenty of small spaces for the 60 children who attend the school to wedge themselves into. “I wanted it to be like a minka,” Takehara says, referring to the traditional Japanese wooden home. “They could lie on the floor. And there were all kinds of fun places for children.”

A year earlier, Takehara had built a larger version of Umenosato – Wada Kindergarten and Nursery School – a few kilometres away. “Most schools here are concrete because of fire concerns. But they lack the warmth of wooden buildings,” says the School’s executive director Benkou Wada. “The children are so animated here. And when they fall on the floor, the wood is forgiving, not like concrete.”

One of the Wada school’s most popular indoor hangout spots is directly beneath the stairs. A square cutout in a wall leads to a space in a corner with a bench. “The children sit there and giggle and talk,” says Takehara.

Why it works:

Home from home: Buildings are designed to make a small child feel at home – which is the point. During the week, they spend most of their waking hours here.

Interest: Randomly placed wooden pillars, classrooms of varying sizes and meandering hallways create quirky spaces that children can explore and play in.

Access: Windows are set low enough for children to look outside and wide windowsills double as lounging areas.

Design: The buildings’ pillar-and-beam design is a hybrid of traditional Japanese carpentry and a modern use of space.

Environment: The children are surrounded by natural materials – unvarnished wood is used for pillars, beams, walls and floors.


Outdoor schools

Scandinavians are renowned for their deep connection with nature.

Throughout this region forest kindergartens (skovbørnehave in Danish) are popular. Children don’t attend school until aged six or seven in Denmark, for example. Prior to that, those from urban environments have the option of attending a forest school. Children meet up in woodland close to urban areas to spend the day among nature. “We are out in all weather apart from thunderstorms,” says skovbørnehave leader Bodil Haller.

Skovbørnehave have been adopted in all of Scandinavia but can trace their origins to Sweden in the early 1950s and in the 1980s were adopted into the Danish national curriculum. Research has shown that children who attend forest schools tend to be happier, have better social skills, fewer sick days, and better coordination and concentration than pre-schoolers in conventional facilities.


School furniture

We scoured our favourite schools and upturned the furniture to find the ultimate firms to call on.

  1. Stuhl 1255 chairs Swiss company Embru started in 1904 as a steel manufacturer specialising in beds. By the 1930s it had branched into school furniture and the Stuhl 1255 by architect Gustav Hassenpflug, from 1934, was one of its first chairs. The stackable steel and beech design still graces Swiss classrooms.

  2. Trivia desk Flip-lid desks are making a comeback in Finland thanks to Iiro Viljanen’s Trivia design, an update of the schoolroom classic. The birch lid hides a grey felt-lined tray, so end-of-lesson desktop clattering is a thing of the past.

  3. Tolix gym lockers This French steel manufacturer might be more renowned for the Model A chair, but it’s the B2 Cabinet lockers that children will recognise. The galvanised steel lockers come in glossy for halls or matt for changing rooms.

  4. School assembly furniture Aichi Shukutoku, a girls’ high school in Japan’s Aichi prefecture designed by Tarao Hiiro Architects and Nihon Sekkei, is filled with wooden furniture by Taiji Fujimori. Highlights are benches made from white birch plywood and fitted with removable coloured backs.

  5. Blackboard Head to Swiss manufacturer Embru for a handy flipboard blackboard or commission one from Chalkboards UK with an elegant oak frame.

  6. Randoseru (backpack) For decades, Japanese children have gone to school toting a randoseru. The high quality models from Ohba Corp are made from 200 pieces of material.

  7. Novex chair and desk Another Swiss company with origins in steel manufacturing (this time for office furniture), Zürich-based Novex branched into school furniture in 1991. The steel and beech ScuolaBox desk and ScuolaFlex chair are both ergonomic and adjustable for young children.

  8. Hall lockers For its Tools at Schools project, consultancy Aruliden and US furniture maker Bernhardt Design employed the expertise of 13-year-old students from The School at Columbia University in New York to create new classroom furniture. This locker has a doorknob, nametag and letterbox.

  9. Nikari canteen Kari Virtanen trained as a cabinetmaker before founding furniture firm Nikari. This design in beech – the TJP2 – features a folding mechanism for table and bench legs.

  10. Montana shelving Danish firm Montana has been furnishing homes and offices since 1982. It also makes custom shelving for schools and the high lacquer, modular systems and range of bright colours make them perfect for classroom storage.

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