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Cadet Branch: Tezuka Architects' Offshoot for a Tokyo School

Embracing an ancient Japanese zelkova, the Ring Around a Tree School is a stimulating enclave for learning and play which formally picks up on the practice’s earlier work for the same client

The Fuji Kindergarten (AR August 2007) in the Tokyo suburb of Tachikawa combines some charmed circumstances − which is not to deny its unquestioned quality as a building.

First − a pair of architects: Takaharu and Yui Tezuka, who are at that interesting stage in their development whereby a sufficiently identifiable set of responses (we might call them mannerisms) have settled to give their work a confidence and a staying power that contrasts with some of their contemporaries in Tokyo − who opt for the hard and the cool. Theirs is somehow an older, more direct, less gimmicky, more friendly architecture.

Second − an unusual and charismatic client: Sekiichi Kato, a thinker and doer in the educational world; an entrepreneur-visionary who clearly has a rapport with the Tezukas. A situation that seems to have been skilfully engineered in that very Japanese way of having a Director − a creative go-between: in this case Kashiwa Sato, himself a designer.

Third − a Tokyo site that was large enough to absorb a building that creates a calm and distinctive place − rather than the usual Tokyo insertion that is only viewable from about one-and-a-half positions.

And fourth − the fact that the pair of architects themselves are energetic parents of young children.

Completed in 2007, the long, oval building is very calm. Indeed, its atmosphere and the detailing of the parts, the extensive use of natural timber in relation to white ceiling/ soffit and the modest height of the rooms that form the underside of the great hoop calmly remind you of Scandanavian architecture at its best, say during 1930-1970.

Now the Tezukas have returned to complete another building on the Fuji Kindergarten site, an annexe for foreign language tuition that is a smaller and slightly more mashed-up version of the original. Most strikingly, it wraps tightly around an ancient Japanese zelkova tree in the manner of an elaborate glazed climbing frame.

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Mature trees in Tokyo are cherished; the zelkova is 50 years old and only just survived the impact of a typhoon, to much amazement. Now it shelters, sustains and gives a name to the Ring Around A Tree School. It’s a neatly metaphorical Japanese tree of knowledge (but given the tender age of the pupils, obviously not that kind of knowledge).

The Fuji Kindergarten operates on Montessori principles, which emphasise the freedom of and learning by doing, rather than static classroom-based teaching. Lessons are carried through in a series of rooms which offer a greater or lesser sense of control, largely through the various teachers. There is very little hierarchy of space. So the modernist-elemental formula of ‘admin block’ vis-à-vis ‘classroom block’ is rejected: it is all wooden, low, civilised (except for kiddie sound, of course), yet not self-effacing.

During break-time, the compact stacked decks of the Ring Around A Tree suddenly become an extraordinary and lively stage. The kids clamber around fearlessly, climbing up the tree and sliding down ropes. The Tezukas’ earlier experience with their ‘roof’ house (AR October 2001) and the oval racetrack roof of the main kindergarten building show that children cheerfully embrace apparently perilous situations and relish risk. Although the Ring Around A Tree only has two storeys, a series of intermediate decks form childscale spaces of 1m high, for the challenge of compressed crawling and clambering.

Even though it’s all highly playful − whimsical even − there is a maturity in the calmness of the detail. The balustrades are extremely ordinary, vertical steel at about 120mm centres, with straightforward, simple handrails. A curved ramp-cum-stair snakes up around the tree, directly up to the roof deck. Furniture is utterly minimal, with simple, built-in benches. What more do you need? At work is a knowing but subtle nonchalance. Childlike, rather than childish. The architecture directly relates to the strength of conviction of Kato − who by all accounts is an academic innovator.

Yet I remain haunted by my reactions to this architecture. Surely way back in those less cynical days when educationalists and their architects were truly passionate believers − in the Sweden of the 1940s or the Hertfordshire Schools of the 1950s and (perhaps) still lingering in the Hampshire Schools of the 1990s, when a clarity of purpose could lead to clear architecture that was not having to be rhetorically formal or cool or self-consciously ‘grungy’: it was simply about what kids did while learning. With the odd tree outside.

Architect Tezuka Architects, Tokyo
Project team Takaharu Tezuka, Yui Tezuka, Kosuke Suzuki, Hisako Yamamura, Takahiro Kitamura, Yuki Henmi
Structural engineer Ohno Japan
Lighting designer Masahide Kakudate
Photographs Katsuhisa Kida/Fototeca

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