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School as a Village

Recent decades’ economic advancement in China has boosted rapidly growing demands of better education. When coupled with the huge population base, it triggered the frenzy of building newer and ever larger schools for primary and secondary education in the last few years. These gigantic new schools often have to be designed and built at once with record breaking speed, instead of growing and expanding naturally as traditionally how a school would have developed. More often than not, these giant structures are built like efficient and generic office parks with little concerns about the needs of growing children who experience the physical world differently at different stages of their lives.

The design of Qingpu Pinghe School started with these challenges of super speed and large scale – it has a 24-class kindergarten, a 30-class primary school and a 24-class junior high school, all on one campus. But it sets out to explore the alternative strategies.

Inspired by a famous African proverb that says: “it takes a village to raise a child”, which rightly stated the social environment needed for kids to grow up healthily, the architect deconstructed the prevailing model of a large school as an agglomerated whole into a constellation of smaller buildings, each with its own unique identity but together they form a nicely-scaled village like community. The exterior spaces among the individual buildings are treated with equal importance as the buildings – they are made into gardens, ponds, forest, hills and play grounds – spaces for children to run freely and be who they are. A meandering running trail threads through this village of school and its undulating terrain, turning the dreadful 400-meter runs into pleasant journeys in nature. Together, the buildings and the landscape in between create a rich and dynamic physical environment that facilitates children’s growth from kindergarten to junior high school.

It is no longer a simple campus, but rather a living organism that sustains the growth of life much like what nature does. The organic distribution of teaching facilities makes it possible that learning can happen anywhere on the campus. The buildings with intimate scale and distinctive characters are easy for children to connect with. Even for a child going through the whole 12 years of education on this very same campus, rotating through different buildings and outdoor play areas, it will be a polychromatic experience that is never boring.

The additional benefit of small-scale buildings is that they are faster to construct, thus coping well with the super-fast-track schedule. They are also more flexible for future upgrades.

On the urban scale, the architect and the client share the view that future schools should be places for social interactions. So in this school the large public programs such as the library, the theater, the pool and the gym are designed to be accessible to the public when the school is not in session, in the effort of making more efficient use of public resources and contributing to the community at large.

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