Designing Learning Environment, Humanizing Architecture
Author: Sergi Sauras
An article on Architecture’s influence in children’s education.
“Building art is a synthesis of life in materialized form. We should try to bring in under the same hat not a splintered way of thinking, but all in harmony together.”
-Alvar Aalto, “Humanizing Architecture”, 1940.
Architecture and Education
School architecture had a propulsive effect on the development of the Modern Movement architecture. Due to their social function nature, school buildings favored the development of powerful architectures, paradoxically low in number. This article explores the evolution of the relations between architecture and pedagogy during the last century and collects relevant proposals dealing with the influence of pedagogical programs in architectural shapes and spaces and vice versa.
Despite the long history of education, until recent times teaching was given in buildings that had other core functions. Concerns over school buildings came with the progress of democracy in the nineteenth century. To extend education to large sections of the population was the concern of Joseph Lancaster, who proposed a model of monitorial education, hundreds of children sitting on benches in the center of a room facing a teacher, a model that was adopted universally for many years.
In the early twentieth century, renowned pedagogues like the Agazzi sisters, Maria Montessori or Rudolf Steiner proposed the idea that school should be an entity that integrates pedagogy and physical environment, considering both as prime constituent of the training process elements the child. In the words of Maria Montessori, this implied “to create a school atmosphere and decoration that were proportional to childhood and to the need of acting wisely” (1937).
The Modern Movement and Pedagogy
This concerns about the relationship between education and space captured the interest of the architects of the Modern Movement, who explored the idea that the built environment could determine the spiritual growth. The above-mentioned Rudolf Steiner, pedagogue and architect, explored spatial configurations that cultivated mental faculties in harmony with the senses and engaged social interaction.
School architecture started to focus in a greater contact with nature, air and sun, dissolving boundaries between interior and exterior. Pedagogue Friedrich Froebel considered outdoor space a learning facilitator, as propitiated spontaneous activities and contact with nature.
Hygienism and School Architecture
Architectural explorations were not only focused in pedagogical issues, but also in hygienic characteristics such as improved ventilation, sunlight and climate control. This exploration inspires a pavilion-type of schematic organization, where classrooms are oriented in search of the best natural conditions, leading to the obsolescence of the organizational scheme of school-cloister.
Taking this hygienic exploration to an extreme, the fight against tuberculosis originated the development of “outdoor schools” aimed to bring together education and health strengthening, but the development of antibiotics weakened its main reason to be. However, this exploration refreshed the approach to the relationship between classroom and nature and added valuable insight in how to design successful spaces.
A beautiful example of this new trend is the Asilo Sant’Elia, in Como, by Giuseppe Terragni. This project has an intense relationship with the outdoor space, as every classroom has its own to open areas framed by a porch –which acts as a transparent outer skin- and the spaces are filled with sunlight.
The link between classrooms and outdoor areas was systematically developed by Richard Neutra. His designs incorporated a lot of dynamism: glass sliding doors that opened to courtyards, indoors openings that allowed crossed ventilation…he worked with psychologists and pedagogues to define an architectural language that ultimately favored the children, away from formal complexity and ego display. He wrote:
“(…) There is no need to impose a loud design, specially in an educational atmosphere with mild climates. It is known that, in the past, philosophers and saints used to sit with his disciples in the shade of a tree, transmitting their wisdom without reinforced concrete structures above them. But they were great men and great spirits who knew how to exploit the universe around them as a teaching material with intelligence and creativity as its simple resource.”
“New Elementary Schools for America”, 1935
In search of an extendible classroom, he developed window systems that integrated nature and outdoor activities to engage education. Flexibility is crucial, even in the furniture design, as a classroom where the professor and the kids are always in the same position and furniture and materials are always in the same spot is condemned to become, sooner or later, a prison. Therefore, seats must be removable, tables adjustable, doors big and windows connected to new interesting spaces.
Age Ranges and Spatial Design
Concerned with responding to the particularities of children processes, architects turned their attention to psychology. German architect Hans Scharoun, inspired by Edouard Claparède ideas about how pedagogy should come from the child, his mental development and his needs, studied how to group students by age ranges in his proposal for Darmstadt School, establishing a connection with their level in a local scale but always keeping the connection with the whole school in a bigger scale.
This idea was probably developed after Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget theories about children cognitive development and its different stages: sensorimotor (age 0-2), preoperational (age 2-7), concrete operational (age 7-11) and formal operational (age 11-16+). Scharoun established three architectural units to accommodate children’s specific needs.
The proposal that architecture should accompany the cognitive development of children added a level of complexity to school design that was doubtfully practical. Scharoun simplified his theory and applied it in his built schools, without giving up the grouping of different age ranges. Classroom had to convey protection for the youngest, favor concentration for the intermediate and allow flexibility for the teenagers, in a subtle way and a systemized construction system. His ideas influenced school architecture since then. Pedagogue Margit Staber pointed out that:
“(…) The most important task of education is the insertion of the individual in the community through the development of a sense of personal responsibility, so that the resulting community represents more than the sum of individuals it contains. This aspect of education can not be taught directly, it is rather a matter of general experience and gradual formation of consciousness that allows the individual to find the right contact with public life and community”.
“Hans Scharoun. Ein Beitrag Zum Organischen Bauen”, 1962.
Isn’t this a beautiful way to summarize Scharoun’s approach to school architecture?
A brief conclusion
Hans Scharoun set a precedent on how the building arts must transcend construction and design to incorporate psychology and philosophy, disciplines that deal with human behavior in a more intimate way. By doing that, we humanize architecture and we focus on what really matters, the harmonious relationship between space and its users.
During the last 50 years, innovative educational systems have been developed with more or less success. Examples? Open Plan schools without defined classrooms, Dutch structuralism bringing together servant and served spaces, or, lately, the school as a city, where corridors become streets that promote interaction and are complemented by plazas where community life is encouraged.
Maybe Scharoun’s rejected complexity was not the answer, but the question. How can we translate all Piaget’s psychology of cognitive development in placing the 3-year-old kid’s chair in the perfect position?
Montessori, María, 1937, El método de la pedagogía científica, Barcelona, Graó.
Neutra, Richard, 1935, “New Elementary Schools for America”, Architectural Forum, núm. 65, ene., pp. 25-36.
Ramírez Potes, Francisco, “Arquitectura y pedagogía en el desarrollo de la arquitectura moderna”, Revista Educación y Pedagogía, Medellín, Universidad de Antioquia, Facultad de Educación, vol. 21, núm. 54, mayo- agosto, 2009, pp. 29-65.
Staber, Margit, 1962, “Hans Scharoun. Ein Beitrag Zum Organischen Bauen”, Zodiac, Milán, núm. 10, pp. 52-93