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Learning Process: Justus-von-Liebig School, Moers, Germany, by Peter Hubner

Participatory design lies at the heart of Peter Hübner’s practice, and in this new school in Germany it comes into its own as students and teachers collaborated with the architects to create a space of their own

In the age of the skilfully manipulated image and cursory tweet, first impressions can be the last, and instant judgements based on a quick glance flatter our taste and encourage our desire for novelty. So buildings win attention by their artful Minimalism or Expressionistic spectacle, leaving the ordinary and the unphotogenic far behind. Yet buildings are also places that nurture societies, so the issues involved in their design can be much more complicated, the story much deeper. For nearly 30 years, the AR has followed the career of an architect who champions process over product, making continuous innovations in participative architecture with results that are sometimes anarchic and untidy, but of proven social value. Back in the 1980s, Peter Hübner eschewed the role of design dictator in favour of something more like circus ringmaster, gaining inspiration from place and people, directing events as they unfolded, and coordinating a multiple and unpredictable creativity. He and his office Büro plus+ are still at it, as recent experience with this new school in Moers shows. It is a Hauptschule, the type catering for the least academic pupils like our old secondary moderns, but in Germany care has long been taken to resource them well, particularly regarding vocational provision, even if the feeling persists that they are at the bottom of the pecking order.

The Moers school had been established in the 1950s, but by the turn of the century its buildings needed major refurbishment, and in 2005 there was a national decision to create ‘all-day’ schools. This means not only staying for lunch, but a seven-hour day with a looser, less academic afternoon curriculum including arts and sport. German educationalists believe that quite apart from allowing both parents to work, such schools promote confidence and socialisation, especially in children from poor, troubled or disavantaged homes. The longer day required extra space and facilities, but calculations on the former Moers school revealed that refurbishment and extensions would exceed the price of a new building. So it was better to start afresh on a new site, and the education authority and school staff began to look around to see what might be done, organising visits to other schools in the region. Peter Hübner’s prize-winning school at Gelsenkirchen evoked the greatest enthusiasm and promise as a model,1 and two of its essential qualities were adopted: that it would take an aggregative form like a small city, and that the classrooms would be participatively designed as the child’s second home.

Peter Hübner's Moers School

Peter Hübner’s Moers School (click to enlarge)

The process of participation
Architects from Hübner’s office visited the industrial city of Moers for a workshop and the school community was divided into four groups, each under the charge of one architect, and they were given the task of setting out the parts as clay blocks on the triangular site. Versions were subsequently compared, the pros and cons argued, and the architects then returned to their office to work up an optimal version which was presented to the school four weeks later for further comment. In parallel, full-day sessions were held with single classes and their teachers, again allotted one architect each to work out the design of classroom units. Each had its own entrance area and lavatory facilities like a small flat, and also some kind of gallery and external garden. It is accepted policy that children belong to a particular classroom and teacher during their whole time at the school, even though many subjects are taught in more specialised rooms, so the class becomes the child’s second home and the teacher his or her long-term mentor. Büro plus+’s participative process is an illuminting lesson in architecture as well as in self-realisation.

First, pupils draw themselves to scale, then they make clay models of their bodies. These are placed to inhabit a wooden framework assembled with the help of the architect, all to scale, so they can see how the spaces work. An important design limit was a standard class width of 9 metres wall to wall, but allowing variations in front, back and roof. Again the architects returned to their office to work up detailed classroom versions with help from engineers and other specialists, before returning to build large-scale models with the pupils.

As the new school was also to include a youth club, a further participative group involved youth-club members and social workers, run in a similar way. The large-scale models were finally assembled so everyone could see the school as a whole, in a party atmosphere. Hübner has over the years developed social rituals along with the building process, taking advantage of the local press and media, which encourages a crescendo of excitement and identification, so that even though in this case the school was finally constructed by contractors under a conventional contract, everyone knew what was coming and felt some degree of possession. Provision of furniture and decisions about colour with the help of an artist were subjects of further debate, added to the mix as things progressed.

Moers School Floor Plans and Section by Peter Hübner

Moers School Floor Plans and Section by Peter Hübner (click to enlarge)

Site and building
Lying between some slab blocks of Modernist housing and a drainage brook, the site began as an empty triangular plot in a green suburb. Since the primary street frontage to the east was largely occupied by a handicapped hostel, only a narrow driveway connection could be made, leaving the school in a secluded backland world whose architectural elevations enjoy a purely local impact.

This suits well the design concept of working from the inside out with concentration on the enclosed space, which is at once village square and focal point. Most classrooms are entered directly from this outdoor room, assuring that it is always animated and avoiding the tricky problem of corridors. A concrete tribune on its north side is a reminder of occasional theatrical events, besides providing seating for outdoor teaching or just for casual sitting about during breaks, valued by pupils for the advantageous view. The whole space is gated at both ends to define the school’s territory and control ingress. The cafeteria looks into the central space from the wide end, but also looks the other way to the hall, so becoming a place of transparency, central in feel. The main hall is used for assemblies but also for theatre or concerts for the whole local community, as with Scharoun’s schools and Henry Morris’s Cambridgeshire Village Colleges.2 It logically occupies the south-east corner, surrounded by two levels of specialised classrooms and staff rooms.

All are accessed by generously daylit street-like spaces that lead you through, offering views both in and out, with stairs clearly and logically placed to direct natural patterns of movement. One tract of rooms swings round to the north following the site limit to form the main entrance, and the staff room is set in a kind of tower at the end, with views over the neighbourhood, allowing them a temporary detachment during breaks. To the east with its own entrance court and signature climbing wall is the youth club, independently run but visible as a natural extension of the school, reflecting its mission to provide an all-day service. If the classrooms on plan at first seem repetitive, closer scrutiny reveals each as different, especially in bays, galleries and roofs, which were developed as a theme and variations. This has allowed individual class identities to develop while the timber-frame building technology remains fairly standardised, variations being easily achieved with 3D software going through to cutting schedules, a discipline in which Hübner was a pioneer.

Students make images of themselves

Students make images of themselves in order to help visualise their use of the space

Response of teaching staff
Head teacher Claudia Corell is a firm believer in the idea that the school building is ‘the third teacher’ after pupils and staff, remarks that numerous visitors were surprised to discover, ‘the atmosphere of a holiday place rather than an institution’. She is in no doubt about the advantages of the participative process: ‘Current scientific research shows that a school building as “the third teacher” leads to definite behavioural patterns and can influence the development of pupils in a positive or a negative way’, says Corell. ‘This was obvious from the moment we moved in, for example the open routes and lack of right-angled corners has from day one led to an easing of movement in the school. Also our ideas about the uses of rooms and our daily life in our school-village with its new media and bright colours were seriously appreciated only after moving in. If you swap an old jalopy for a racing car, you need to adjust your driving, so we had to find new relationships and possibilities in the new spaces, to modify or revise our rules, even to discard them.

‘As a normal Hauptschule with an all-day programme, we must provide an education that leads on to a vocational career, for which so-called soft-skills such as teamwork, self-discipline, structuring of work, criticality and responsibility play an important part … In approaching our task we benefit from the latest research on psychology as well as educational principles about learning through doing, and we concern ourselves not only with special needs, but also with immigrant children who have little German, instituting a “culture-school” that includes cultural factors as part of personal development’, she says.

‘The special architecture of our school complex allows our pedagogical concept to be optimally developed. It promotes the daily personal responsibility of our pupils as well as their critical awareness in curriculum work, and this continues across breaks and beyond the school day. The focus on personal responsibility, initiated by participation in the school’s design and development, runs like a red thread through all our work. The participative creation of the building form produced a high degree of identification, and after a year of use we experienced another development: that the red thread of personal responsibility and participation has developed into a dynamic process, opening up new directions in pedagogy.’ 3

There have been positive reactions not only from staff and visitors but also from the pupils, who when interviewed by a media team were asked what their favourite places were. Not surprisingly these included classroom galleries, music room, prayer room, computer room, but also the main hall, stairs, the seating tribune and benches in the central space, even a sheltered corner by a classroom door. Many sites lay in the in-between spaces where pupils could meet friends or observe from the edge what was going on. One boy said his favourite place was the secretarial office, as he is proud of the responsibility he has been given in helping out there.

Hübner precedent

Precedents for Hübner’s participation process include a school for the children of immigrant families in Gelsenkirchen

Hübner’s early projects mostly involved a major component of self-build, often necessary due to very low budgets, and it was sometimes a struggle to sustain commitment through the hard work. He soon found that it was much easier if at least major parts of the building work were done by professionals, though some personal input by the users still proved to be an important catalyst. With schools like those at Gelsenkirchen and Moers, full budgets and normal building processes had to be accepted as a matter of course along with a normal contractual responsibility on the part of the architects: everything drawn in advance, all predetermined to the regulations and little site improvisation. Therefore it was essential, whatever ideas emerged from the school body, that they were translated into buildable form, and cynics will doubtless claim that there is a Hübner style, that it is the architects who are in control, and real participation is somewhat limited.

Outcomes and the future
Against this one can argue that the staff certainly feel that they have had their say and it has taken effect, but also that the architects have been immersed in the life of the school and the place, and the protracted period of discussion and contact certainly gave them much to think about and react to. The result is a high degree of specificity and complexity, and the avoidance of repetition, an escape from simple boxes and relentless corridors which provoke children to run through them as fast as possible. Cynics may also argue that building specifically for just this head teacher, and just her staff and pupils, has produced too time-bound a fix that will be overturned as they move on, leaving her unfortunate inheritors stuck with their idiosyncratic decisions.

Yet revisits to 30 years of participative work by Hübner has shown precisely the opposite: that the commitment by the users to their building, once gained, has remained and been passed on. In the case of the Stuttgart Bauhäusle it has continued through about 10 student generations.4 It has led to the buildings being cared for and looked after, but also further developed. Even if the participation was more illusion than reality, the placebo effect and the sense of possession would still be worth having. But there is also an educational effect: all those children modelling themselves, putting their maquettes in a model classroom, learning about scale, space and materials, will that not encourage an improved relation between buildings and society?


1. AR January 2001, pp54-59.
2. See Learning from Scharoun, AR November 2012, pp67-77.
3. Claudia Corell, ‘Kein Märchen aus 1001 Nacht’ (Not stories from 1001 nights), in Bilden und Bauen: Wie Moers Schule Macht, booklet published by Stadt Moers 2013, pp84-88, my translation.
4. A 30-room student hostel of the early 1980s first reported on in ‘Student Self-Build in Stuttgart’, Architects’ Journal, 27 July 1983, pp32-50. I revisited most of the early projects in preparation for my monograph: Peter Blundell Jones, Peter Hübner, Building as a Social Process, Axel Menges, 2007 (English and German texts).

Fact File

Architect: Peter Hübner, Büro plus+
Photographer: Peter Hübner, Cornelia Suhan


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