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Learning from Scharoun's Marl School

Scharoun’s school in the mining town of Marl has been saved from demolition and is being converted for use as a music school, preserving a pioneering facet of his contribution to the fabric of postwar Germany

Embodying radical yet humane ideas about the potential of architecture to shape social and pedagogical interaction, Hans Scharoun’s 1970s primary school at Marl came close to demolition, but is now being restored to accommodate a new use as a music school, in a programme that engages and resonates with the architect’s original design intentions

Hans Scharoun planned a handful of schools in the post-war years of which two were built: the Geschwister-Scholl girls’ Gymnasium at Lünen and the larger Haupt und Grundschule at Marl, both in the industrial Ruhr during the prosperity of the German Wirtschaftswunder of the late 1950s and early ’60s. Both projects look back to an idealistic model school Scharoun had presented at the conference Mensch und Raum at Darmstadt in 1951, at which also Martin Heidegger presented his famous paper Bauen, Wohnen, Denken.

Marl Primary School

Low-rise classrooms cluster round the school assembly hall

Scharoun’s radical concept envisaged a school articulated as a series of diverse individually shaped elements strung together like houses in a village and linked by a street-like interior. Not only was this intended to give the rooms separate identities closely related to their functions, but also to develop in the pupils a high degree of territorial identity. There were even theories about why classrooms for differently aged pupils should have different shapes and colours. A specific site was envisaged for this prototype, but no budget was forthcoming so nothing was ever built. However, Scharoun’s design soon became the milestone for extreme specificity in architectural thinking that it has remained ever since.

Even as a conference proposal it met some opposition: the conservative Paul Bonatz, architect of Stuttgart railway station, dismissed Scharoun as a ‘zerdenker’, a destroyer of rational thought, and such insults are still occasionally heard from those who regard departure from the right-angle as a sin.

Marl Primary School

Circulation space between the entrance and the assembly hall. Such spaces have an indefinite, transient feel, encouraging movement and exploration

But Scharoun’s approach was applauded by progressive teachers and left-wing politicians, and by the mid ’50s he had been commissioned for a girls’ Gymnasium in Lünen, named after the brother and sister martyred for opposing the Nazis, Hans and Sophie Scholl. It was an existing school that had survived by sharing the premises of another, but only with great difficulty, and it was largely due to the efforts of head Bruno Wieloch and a couple of governors that the project was initiated. Scharoun worked closely with them, sharing their social and philosophical aims.

As he put it at the opening: ‘Since children are so impressionable in their early years, a rich childhood can be the foundation for a whole life. Education is not just the development of intellectual capabilities, not just the achievement of particular knowledge and abilities: it is a process which allows the bringing together and developing of all faculties. Therefore learning must be in harmony with the child’s growth and development, and the school, like the home, must stand as evidence that the earth is a good place to dwell.’1

Marl Primary School

Pupils at Marl primary school in the 1970s, when the school was first completed. Spatial differentiation between the various parts of the complex created a strong sense of place, encouraging personal identification with particular elements

The school was closely tailored to the girls’ needs as Wieloch saw them, and it proved educationally successful, despite Wieloch’s early death in 1974 and a change to co-educational status. In 1983, Hermann Korte, the second head, reported that despite the endless changes in structure and organisation suffered by all German schools in that period: ‘the intimacy, atmosphere and freedom of space which Scharoun created and which generations of pupils and staff have helped maintain, remain valid today. These qualities pervade our life together, positively appreciated by pupils, staff, and parents alike.’2

A 70-page anniversary booklet with stories, photographs and art work from staff and students, press cuttings and other marginalia, record the vivid life the school had enjoyed over this 25 year period. A personal visit in the mid 1990s confirmed the school’s continuation and some reinvigoration of the ethos by a new head after some years in the doldrums. Some unsympathetic infill due to space pressures and temporary extensions involving standard site-huts had been reversed following historic listing, and the original colour scheme had been restored.

Marl Primary School

Classrooms are generously daylit and overlook small gardens

The fate of Scharoun’s other built school, at nearby Marl, has been less happy, despite a hopeful and progressive start, and despite it having been Scharoun’s final chance to put his educational ideas into practice. Marl was a new town founded in the 1920s around a coalmine, and it later provided the workforce for a large chemical works.

Its mayor in the 1950s was Rudolf-Ernst Heiland, a left-wing politician connected with the trade unions who had been condemned for treason by the Nazis and spent a year and a half in a labour camp. He was a long-standing member of the Bundesrat and so won power and influence, and had money to spend in what Edgar Reisz called ‘The Proud Years’.3 Heiland saw that his ever growing, sprawling town had no real centre, and in 1958 organised an international architectural competition for a new town hall, not just as housing for the town’s bureaucrats and social events, but also as a deliberate landmark, a Stadtkrone in Bruno Taut’s sense, open to the people and promoting democracy.

five_scharoun

Among invited architects were not only Scharoun, but Alvar Aalto and Arne Jacobsen. In the first of two competition stages the two outstanding schemes were those of Scharoun and of Van den Broek & Bakema, but finally Van den Broek won and their scheme was built, particularly appreciated for the external image given to the public hall and council chamber with its great folded roof.

Scharoun’s second-placed design was praised for its open public realm but criticised for allowing domination by the bureaucratic office block which constituted the largest part of the brief, a difficult problem: Van den Broek put them in four small towers, of which only two were built.Heiland was so impressed by Scharoun and his social ideas, that he gave him the commission for a large school as a kind of consolation prize, but with an adequate budget and very long and detailed consultation.

two_scharoun

The idea of the Klassenwohnung (classroom-flat) as the second home for the child which had been developed for Lünen was repeated, again with clerestory-lit main teaching space, annexe, external teaching space and cloakrooms, the Klassenwohnungen strung together along a generous Gruppenraum which could be used for activities shared between them.

As with the first school project for Darmstadt, the classrooms were differentiated in relation to the ages of children between Unterstufe, Mittelstufe and Oberstufe, each given its own group territory, though the eldest had the least identifiable territory, being intended to possess the whole. The classes in their different wings fed into an irregular street-like foyer surrounding the central assembly hall and theatre which gave the school its heart. Here not only assemblies and teaching events were to be held, but also films, plays and concerts, making it a cultural centre for the whole area in the evenings.4

one_scharoun

The school was orientated, classrooms for the youngest children being set to the south, the entrance and staff-wing to the north, and the gymnasium at the north-east corner with direct entry for use by adults in the evenings. On the west side was a range of purpose-designed rooms for specialist subjects including natural science and domestic science. A northlit workshop with forge and heavy tools was meant to evoke the atmosphere of a factory, both to mimic the conditions of production and to prepare pupils for later life in industry.

Changes in site level were exploited in directional steps offering the kind of spatial punctuation found in all Scharoun’s later work, and guiding the visitor through. Most of the school remained single-storey, daylight being admitted throughout, and also through tiny planted courtyards. Even the auditorium offered daylit conditions with a big window and tubular rooflights closable by rotating shutters like butterfly valves.

four_scharoun

Unfortunately Heiland died in 1965 when it was still under construction, so the political impetus waned, but the building was completed more or less as planned, with good materials and finishes, and an impressive atmosphere. Already by the time of a visit in 1972, though, some conditions of the brief had changed and classes were overcrowded, but the atmosphere was good, and much appreciated by staff and students. The school was even considered too beautiful by some staff and therefore extravagant. But changes in the German education system took their toll, and a crisis arose over pupil numbers, for the local housing estates had been planned for young families whose children grew up and left for work or university, and enrolment fell.

New uses were invented for parts of it, including a music school and a home for refugees, but partitions had to be added, breaking the fluidity of the internal street. Maintenance was neglected and vandalism began, break-ins counteracted by addition of prison-like bars over classroom windows. The bitumen felt roofs, the inevitable ’60s solution for low-pitched roofs, began to age and leak, so that by the early years of the new millennium the building was in a sorry state, worsened by the fact that it remained unoccupied for three years. Mould was a health threat and an embarrassment, so the municipality resolved in 2006 to convert it into an old people’s home or to demolish it.

three_scharoun

In horrified reaction, a local group that appreciated its quality and pedigree started an Initiativkreis (Initiative circle) led by Pastor Hartmut Dreier, a Green Councillor, with the help of the regional branch of the BDA (Bund Deutscher Architekten). An international letter-writing campaign was launched and symposia were organised. The building was listed, and investigations soon revealed that the mould infestation was superficial and therefore reversible. Efforts were made to find a new use in harmony with the original educational intentions, and the idea arose of making the Scharoun school the centre of the regional network of music schools, using its assembly hall (Mini-Philharmonie as the Principal calls it) as their concert hall.

Following renovation, classroom wings will also be reused as a local primary school. After much political lobbying and involvement of ministers, votes were won, money was found, and renovation has begun. It necessarily includes replacing roofs, double glazing and extra insulation involving minor changes of detail, but on the whole it respects the original concept. A new life is promised, and already northlit workshops have become effective music rooms.

Marl Primary School

A workshop now converted into a music practice room. Scharoun’s original spaces have proved extremely adaptable to new uses

Fifty years on Scharoun’s design for Marl presents the classic plan for the aggregated school, more disciplined and surefooted than any successors I know,5 so that by now accusations of irrationality and ‘zerdenkerism’ seem completely misguided. His individual elements of building have their own evident logic and discipline, yet are also well interrelated, with every swing of angle or change in level used to advantage, and with an unfolding view and a leading route the constant concern. Many rooms are actually rectangular with straightforward load-bearing construction, yet the system is always local, and the in-between spaces are in contrast irregular, so one recognises them to be of a different kind.

As regards the theatre at the heart, an irregular quadrant folds the audience around the action, recalling a semicircular pattern of gathering still seen with public performances in the open air, which extends back to Greek theatre. That this was a relatively late design development is proved by the existence in the archives of an earlier two-storey version of the school fully drawn up that had a more ordinary box-like hall at an upper level, though with the same aggregative layout and wings of classrooms.

Marl Primary School

Since the building has been listed, renovation work is now in progress under the guidance of Christoph Ellermann of Münster-based Pfeiffer Ellermann Preckel Architects. The aim is to restore the fabric and transform the school into the hub of a network of regional music schools

The polygonal classrooms can be used in centralised or linear mode, and their hexagonal shape allows clerestory lighting from all sides. Those for the younger children are tighter, more enclosing, those for the older children more conducive to the imposition of discipline. Tapered, raked lecture theatres and sawtooth roofed workshops add further recognisable forms, and in a building without chimneys the brick flue of the workshop forge provides a powerful accent. All helps to differentiate one part from another and establish different territories with clear thresholds and evident changes of scale.

Scharoun believed this would help the child understand what it meant to belong to a small group relative to a large one, and to move between the two. The school is a city with separate houses and linking streets, and its dense low-rise form, with constant exposure to the outside world via windows and rooflights of many kinds, means that the natural world is never far away. The junior school is reached by an open roofed link, and the internal street was meant to keep at a buffer temperature, not the usual 23 degrees Celsius. Little courtyards relieve the classrooms, and at two prominent corners they provide light and view to the internal street, one a former biotope as part of natural sciences.

Marl Primary School

The assembly hall, described by the school Principal as a ‘Mini-Philharmonie’. Recalling the semicircular gatherings of Greek theatre, an irregular quadrant folds spectators around the action

The linking street, with its varying levels, built-in seats, and well-placed rooflights is still the most enticing and impressive space, and generations have recognised and enjoyed its atmosphere, but late variations in published drawings suggest that this was the last and most difficult part of the design, with careful readjustments of the steps in the floor and decisions about the canopy with its irregularly placed radial steel structure. The apparent lack of geometric discipline differentiates this open zone from more regular elements around it, so stressing its transitional function.

Here more than anywhere the avoidance of the homotopic and autistic grid brings life and freedom. Buildings change, and highly specific designs are often criticised as inflexible, but it hardly seems to matter in this case that a northlit workshop has changed into a practice room. The severest territorial definition still present is the universal one: the gendering of WCs, but the perceivable polarity between workshops and housework, doubtless gender-based in 1960, can disappear. All in all, sympathetic new use as a music school promises a healthy future, and shows how drastic shoehorning can be avoided by careful negotiation, installing an appropriate new programme in place of the old.

Footnotes

1. Scharoun’s speech at the opening 13 June 1958, school anniversary booklet p3. The final sentence is the title of an essay by Bruno Taut from 1919.
2. School anniversary booklet p6, my translation.
3. Die Stolzen Jahre was the title of the episode in his film series Heimat when the story reaches 1960.
4. The dream of many educationalists, realised in many German Waldorf (Steiner) schools where the theatre is the central element, but also as advocated in the UK by Henry Morris, instigator of the Cambridgeshire Village Colleges including Gropius and Fry’s Impington with its projecting auditorium.
5. Lucien Kroll, Günter Behnisch and Peter Hübner have all designed highly aggregated schools, many of which have been published in the AR

The original article on Scharoun’s schools can be found here

Photographs: Dennis Gilbert

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