Schools of Thought: Educational Architecture

Moving into the 21st century, school buildings across Europe are lagging behind the times. Jodie McLeod looks at four top European architects that are bucking this trend and setting a new standard for educational architecture.


The public school building archetype of the last century is not pretty. For many, remembering one's school days conjures images of drab concrete blocks, cold corridors and muddy playgrounds.

The UK Government was well aware of this fact when it pledged over £45bn to improving schools across the country through its Building Schools for the Future (BSF) programme.

The programme has allocated a globally unprecedented amount of funding to the purpose of building new schools with a view to transforming education, and has spawned a number of innovative designs.

These include the Brunel Academy in Bristol by London-based Wilkinson Eyre Architects – the first secondary school in the UK to be completed as part of the BSF programme – and Lambeth's Michael Tippett School for Special Education Needs by Marks Barfield Architects, creators of the London Eye.

Outside British borders, a selection of European architects are setting new benchmarks for building innovative school structures – from preparatory schools to colleges – that meet the challenges of budget, site conditions, and most of all – inspiring students.

"Substance has breathed new life into the Majori Primary School in the resort town of Jurmala."

Majori Sports Hall, Jurmala, Latvia

Latvian architecture firm Substance has breathed new life into the Majori Primary School in the resort town of Jurmala with a 3,252m² multifunctional sports hall. The hall provides all-weather sporting opportunities for students along with year-round community involvement with regional sporting games and local sport team training sessions being held at the grounds. It is used for athletics, basketball, volleyball and handball in the summer, and is converted into an ice rink for ice hockey and skating during the winter.

Built on an abandoned historic marketplace adjacent to the school, the building opens towards the river on one side and incorporates an original shed from the market. Spectator stands holding 306 seats occupy the second floor. Principal architect Arnis Dimins says the building's silhouette was key. Reducing the structure's bulkiness was also important due to the low height and style of surrounding buildings. The structural beams were left exposed to create a dynamic visual impression while reducing its mass. The height was kept down to 14m, just high enough for volleyball games. At night the building takes on another identity, its polycarbonate façade glowing warmly, criss-crossed with the pattern of the beams.

"Already, many inhabitants of Jurmala perceive this building as one of the city's identity symbols," says Arnis, adding that the sports hall brings more to Majori Primary School than just sport. "The public object is an original instrument through which the architect may offer a new experience and ideology for self-recognition to society," he says.

Luigi Bocconi University, Milan, Italy

The challenges of building schools in city centres, especially in European cities, are to do with space, lighting and the integration of the building with its surroundings.

Grafton Architects from Ireland found solutions to all three with the Luigi Bocconi University faculty building in Milan, completed in 2008. Occupying an 80m by 160m site, the building contains five conference halls and lecture facilities including a 1,000-seat aula magna (main hall), as well as courtyards, concourses and research offices for 1,000 professors and post-graduate students.

"Occupying an 80m by 160m site, Luigi Bocconi University contains five conference halls and lecture facilities."

The most daunting prospect for project architects Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara was how to prevent the underground lecture hall from becoming shut off from the building.

Their response was to create channels of light connecting the sky-lit rooftop rooms to the undercroft. Inside, the building takes on a market hall feel – an open space that encourages the exchange of ideas, research and knowledge. Above the hall, the glass-walled upper floor research rooms allow the space of the city to overlap with the life of the university.

On the ground level, an 18m by 90m "finger of space" beckons people into the mouth of the building.

Located at the intersection of Viale Bligny and Via Roentgen – streets bustling with trams, traffic and pedestrians – the building's entrance becomes a window out into Milan, and a window onto the world of business and economic research. The building was the first to receive the World Building of the Year Award at the inaugural World Architecture Festival in Barcelona in 2008.

Kindergarten Sighartstein, Salzburg, Austria

Modern day pre-schools must compensate for the conflicts imposed on children by contemporary lifestyles. This is the view of Gerhard Wittfeld, who together with Klaus Kada, makes up German architecture firm Kadawittfeldarchitektur. The firm's pre-school project Kindergarten Sighartstein, just outside of Salzburg in Austria, does just that. "The possibility of exploring wild territories without danger is slowly disappearing," says Wittfeld. Kindergarten Sighartstein allows children to engage in free and creative play – essential for gaining self-confidence.

The 957m², two-storey building comprises two kindergarten rooms on the ground floor and two crèche rooms on the first level. The ground floor rooms have access to the garden, encouraging seamless indoor/outdoor play. A multipurpose main stair doubles as hall and play area, covered in green rubber flooring. Floor-to-ceiling windows invite nature and light indoors.

The design brief deigned that the building should blend into the landscape, to which the architects responded with playful yet functional metal elements on the façade. The green louvres are designed to replicate the blades of grass in the surrounding meadows, but also work to shade the upper floor from heat and sunlight. The colour scheme is ubiquitously green, a shade chosen for its therapeutic, calming qualities. There are also artistic opportunities for the children to interact with the building concept, by playing in a miniature kindergarten replica made of cardboard.

"Children learn by playing, and when they do this in a relaxed atmosphere, quiet and fully concentrated, we lay the foundation for every form of learning later in life," says Wittfeld.

"Kindergarten Sighartstein allows children to engage in free and creative play."

Central Los Angeles Area High School #9 for the Visual and Performing Arts, Los Angeles, California, US

A giant geometric tower with a spiralling ramp, symbolic of the numeral 9 is the icon of High School #9 in downtown Los Angeles, California, by Austrian architects Coop Himmelb(l)au. Funded by The Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), the $171.9m High School for the Visual and Performing Arts is a product of LAUSD's state bond-funded plan to have 155 new schools built in its district by 2012.

Seven separate structures make up the 1,800-student school, including a theatre building (with a 957-seat theatre, lobby and tower), a library, a cafeteria and four classroom buildings representing the faculties of visual arts, performing arts, music and dance.

The design, led by principal architect Wolf D Prix, is based on a 'chess concept', whereby sculptural buildings "redefine spatially and energetically the otherwise orthogonal arrangement of the master plan," say the architects.

Architectural symbols imbue the design with depth of meaning and enhanced educational functions. The library is a truncated cone that directs the gaze of students up to a Pantheon-like round glass window, a focal point of contemplation.