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Typology: Schools

In the industrial era, schools developed as highly controlled environments to instil the discipline to thrive in a machine age. Now, to prepare pupils for success in a knowledge economy, the evolving typology is more fluidly conceived to provide flexibility, connectivity, and spaces for social and educational encounters

Schools have always been a reflection of a society’s stage of development. The painting by Dutch artist Jan Steen (see previous page) illustrates a 17th-century village school where hardly a child appears to be engaged in studying as we know it today. But as strange as the scene may seem, following recent ‘constructivist’ learning theories, most of these children are actively involved in a learning process.

A completely different atmosphere is portrayed in a classroom scene set in a German village school, painted in 1848 by Albert Anker. There are rows of benches; boys and girls are separated, with the boys occupying the pole position and the girls placed on the sidelines. The teacher is armed with a cane, which helps him to at least impress the first two rows of pupils. To a large extent, this classroom is a by-product of the Industrial Revolution. The school had become an institution designed to drill people for the economy of the Machine Age, which depended on a reliable and productive workforce.

In terms of the basic setting, early modern learning spaces were not so different to their predecessors, at least as far as mainstream education is concerned. As modern as they look from the outside (take, for example, Jan Duiker’s famous Open Air School in Amsterdam, built in 1927-30), the classroom itself has hardly changed. Of course, it has become spacious and light, and girls and boys are once again treated as equals. But it is still a highly controlled space, symbolising another stage in the Industrial Revolution, that is the rise of the service sector and a growing need for people working in administration.

Hans Scharoun's Geschwister Scholl School, 1961

Hans Scharoun’s Geschwister Scholl School, 1961

Today, the majority of schools across the world continue to follow this standard model and its associated typologies. Even those among recent schools that are aesthetically more ambitious usually adhere to the teacher-centred classroom-and-corridor model that has been the standard for almost two centuries. Why should we expect radically different learning spaces will become mainstream any time soon?

The main reason can be found in the post-industrial society and the demands of its knowledge economy. Almost a decade ago, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) published a study on ‘Key Qualifications for a Successful Life and a Well-Functioning Society’ (Rychen and Salganik, 2003) that identified a set of three essential qualifications: ‘act autonomously’, ‘interact in heterogeneous groups’ and ‘use tools interactively’.

‘Acting autonomously’ requires students to set their own goals, to take their own decisions and to assume responsibility for the results. ‘Interacting in heterogeneous groups’ relates to a society that requires cross-cultural understanding and co-operation, both on the local level (due to migration) and on the global level (due to globalisation), but also across different age groups in an ageing society.

Aldo Rossi's Middle School, Broni, 1983

Aldo Rossi’s Middle School, Broni, 1983

‘Use tools interactively’ relates to the importance of information requiring responsible users, who are able to tailor technology according to their needs. Helping students to acquire these qualifications requires forms of teaching that go beyond traditional models: these include moving from teacher-directed to self-directed learning; personalised learning, which reduces instruction time and increases project work; dividing up the social unit of a class into subgroups and creating new forms of learning partnerships; teaching in teams and across disciplines; and opening up the school to the network of learning that surrounds it physically and virtually.

School buildings that respond to these changing needs may be best identified by their ‘Space for Teams’, offering an adaptive infrastructure with well-designed micro-environments. In regard to typology, we can expect a greater variety than that allowed for by the standard model, although the new schools share at least four characteristic features: flexibility, clustering, a common core and connectivity.

The first feature, flexibility, offers the possibility of creating different learning arrangements to meet different needs. This does not necessarily lead to an open-plan school or to machinery with sliding doors and partitions. Flexibility of usage can be achieved through a better granularity of room sizes in combination with sophisticated time management.

As a by-product, this offers a potentially higher level of efficiency than in the standard model, where circulation spaces are mostly unusable for learning and mono-functional classrooms are underused. Clustering, the second feature, is delivered by dividing up the school space into a hierarchy of smaller clusters, introducing an intermediate level between the former classroom and the school as a whole, and support-team teaching. These clusters are the result of the experience that complex team-building processes work best in a large group of 150 people sharing a territory.

Leutschenbach School by Christian Kerez

Leutschenbach School by Christian Kerez

The third feature, the common core, is an informal meeting place and a melting pot for the school as a whole. And last but not least, the idea of connectivity plays a vital role. This implies that the school is a node in a wider network of learning, locally optimising the use of learning institutions, such as schools, kindergarten and library; and globally using the potential of ICT.
It is important to note that none of these ideas is new.

They have been discussed and implemented during the major wave of school reform in the 1960s. In spite of initial positive results, none of these buildings was a lasting success. The spaces’ sound-proofing proved insufficient; artificial lighting and ventilation made the users feel uncomfortable. The main problem, however, was that teachers had not been adequately trained, and as they were rarely involved in the planning process, they did not feel much incentive to live up to a concept that might have been promising in theory, but did not perform in everyday life.

Today’s similar concepts can only be successful if the lessons of these large-scale experiments are properly learned. First, they indicate how important the participation of users in the planning process is. The majority of the most innovative schools of the last decade have been designed in planning processes involving as many stakeholders as possible. This requires a lot of effort, and costs time and money.

Romania School by Herman Hertzberger

Romania School by Herman Hertzberger

But this is well invested, since users not only feel more satisfied with the results, but also become experts who help to create better designs.
Second, architects 40 years ago attempted to create aesthetically neutral spaces, hoping that the users would fill them with life. Again, recent successful examples chose a different approach, attempting to develop memorable school spaces.

The big challenge here is to create spaces that are as attractive as possible while at the same time kept open for future changes. The examples reviewed overleaf try to find the right balance between robust infrastructures and carefully designed (but not over-designed) micro-environments that can be adapted by the users.

Case Studies


Orestad College by 3XN Architects

Click here to read.



Romania School, Herman Hertzberger, Autonome Forme and Marco Scarpinato, Rome, Italy

Click here to read.



Leutschenbach School, Christian Kerez, Zurich, Switzerland

Click here to read.



Ringstabekk School, Div.A.Arkitekter, Baerum, Norway

Click here to read.

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