By John Noble and Ed Melvin
One of the most important challenges in any design is to strike the appropriate balance between quality of environment and cost. While it sometimes feels depressingly pragmatic, it is a fundamental truth and, to paraphrase Louis Kahn, “If you don’t accommodate the realities of a project they will come back and bite you.” (OK, he didn’t actually say that, but the sentiment informed much of his greatest work.)
One of the realities that we architects commonly face is the fact that landscape design is often seen as an extra, a bonus or, in a best case scenario, an alternate that the client will accept if the bids come back low enough. The problem with this, in the context of early childhood education, is that the outdoors are one of the richest, most learning-provoking environments around, and anything that diminishes opportunities for outdoor learning really short-changes the entire school community.
With that in mind, we have been exploring design strategies that build a connection between inside and outside so deeply within the structure of the design that, even if the budget cannot accommodate a sumptuous planting budget or expensive play-structure right out of the gate, the shape and organization of the spaces will foster learning. And allow for an organic growth and development of the outdoor learning environment.
A result of these efforts is the prototype ECS that we designed for a suburban site on a busy thoroughfare-a context not automatically suggestive of a rich outdoor learning environment. The design weaves together inside and outside spaces, affording teachers a great deal of flexibility in allowing the day to unfold and establishes/suggests a rhythm to the day that maximizes opportunities for learning in a wide variety of configurations and contexts, from group to individual, indoor to outdoor, structured to improvised.
The plan is composed of a basic module of paired classrooms on a single level around a central courtyard. The school is designed to accommodate 140 students from six months to six years in age. It is fully accessible and includes support spaces for individual and group work as well as occupational, physical and speech therapy. It contains an indoor large-muscle area as well as a multi-purpose room for use as a cafeteria or community meeting and parent-resource room. Alternatively, that space could be devoted to classrooms, increasing the total student population to 196. The design is homelike in scale, suffused with natural light and visually inter-connected. Consistent views through to the courtyard and surroundings, along with clear landmarks, allow for easy, intuitive way-finding. The infant/toddler classes are arrayed around the perimeter of the building, each with its own dedicated outdoor learning space more suitably scaled to the needs and abilities of the smaller children.
The centerpiece (literally and figuratively) of the school is the central courtyard and its four themed “porches”. Each porch is shared between two classrooms and is separated from the central court by moveable gates, allowing them to function as an extension of the classroom when the gates are closed or as an extension of the yard when they are open. Each porch is identified by a material theme: Wood, Sand, Water and Stone. The central court itself is designed around the notion of multiple paths and experiences that allow a child or group of children to invent their own adventures. One key feature is a natural bowl-shaped depression adjacent to the community room with integral steps and slides which can serve both as a catalyst for activity and a setting for larger scale dramatic play and group learning.
A great deal of thought went into the notion that thresholds can be more than just a step from one space to another but instead can help transform the way a person is in the world from one state of being to another. Big words, yes, but here is what we mean: in the morning, when you are driving the carpool to school, the atmosphere is one of random energy, whining, goofing around or dreading the day to come not the ideal frame of mind for focused and engaged learning. Similarly, for the parent, the experience can be one of harried list-checking, incessant behavior reminders/corrections and a general sense of being stretched thin by the requirements of the day not the best frame of mind for thoughtful engagement and community building. As we worked through the mechanics of pickup and drop-off we thought that maybe we could make some small modifications to the built environment that would create a context for more thoughtful engagement.
To be specific, for parents, we widened the space between the two central lines of parking, creating a generous green and shade-filled sitting space with benches, large boulders and welcoming open areas which are intended to encourage parents to get out of their cars and linger together, arrange play-dates, figure out whose mitten was left in the back seat last Thursday in other words, strengthen the bonds of community within the school. This space also provides a transition from automobile scale to one more attuned to young children on their way to a day of being natural scientists.
Across the drive from the parent plaza (demarcated by an extension of the pedestrian surface rather than a continuation of the driving surface) we created a landing spot with a figural fruit tree and a comfortable bench at the top of a gently sloping foot-bridge which spans a “stream,” a man-made engineered construction with all of the interest and fascination of a real stream but unobtrusively designed to minimize risk. The extended threshold of terrace/bridge/front porch incorporates a host of sensory cues that redirect the focus of the participant from the texture of the wood planks to the sound of footsteps mixing with the babbling brook to the fragrance of flowers and the rhythm of grasses swaying in the breeze. The gradual slope of the bridge culminates in a change in material and posture, signaling arrival, while the views through the vestibule to the courtyard beyond offer a promise of the fun to come that day.
In short, the threshold is conceived as a machine for transformation, shifting the participant, just for a moment, out of the monotony of the daily routine and preparing them for a day of learning and engagement.
As this prototype hopefully makes clear, landscape design can be intelligently, creatively and economically incorporated into learning spaces and, thereby, make meaningful, positive and lasting impacts on the students fortunate enough to learn there.