Thinking about what seeds to leave to the younger generation, Italo Calvino in Six Memos for the Next Millenium writes that “fantasy is a place where it rains.” This expression not only depicts the fruitfulness of our imagination but also suggests, from a more material standpoint, that imagination cannot be enclosed in a room; and even if it were, in that room would nevertheless rain. The school of the future must be a “place where it rains.” In an abstract way referring to fantasy, but also literally, creating a deep connection between its indoors and outdoors. Education cannot stop, and the design of innovative schools must provide an effective response to health emergencies such as COVID-19.
Project Name: No-Stop School
Studio Name: Valenti & Zuliani
Kindergartens and primary schools have suddenly found themselves stripped of one of their core principles: sociality. In an instant, we found ourselves forced to rethink the whole system of priorities on which our schools are based. In fact, our reflection on the project arises from the question: what must we retain? What are the future skills to make primary and early childhood education work? How does school integrate with technology, without the subordination of the first to the second? When the shock of the epidemic passes and concrete answers are needed, we are convinced that the combination of architecture and education must stand out to create safe schools where individuals are self-sufficient but in relation, all the while guaranteeing each one’s health. A similar convergence of skills involving educators, pedagogists, doctors and architects took place at the beginning of the 20th century with the École de Plein Air, a response to the diseases that were infecting millions, also the result of urbanism and a new exploitation of the planet’s resources – in short, a situation in some ways comparable to what we are living today. The compelling value of that experience was its novel viewpoint seeking a synthesis in cross-disciplinary works.
NO-STOP School starts from the belief that nature and technology must be integrated in the school and indoor and outdoor must coexist for the school to stay a vital support for the community. Resilience, porosity and interaction are key categories that allow us to identify the ways in which architecture can inform new school buildings. In a present torn by the health crisis and nevertheless compelled to find solutions for a future that must soon begin – these spaces need to be highly flexible in order to adapt to educational, social and public health changes, while remaining durable enough to withstand time.
The traditional classroom-corridor distribution and an overly restrictive legislation are the first points that need to be rewritten. A lower internal density, that is, fewer students per square feet, will allow to manage not only health emergencies such as COVID-19, but will also increase the re-programmability of spaces. A new distribution of modules that rejects a functional division can accommodate diverse areas for different educational styles: high-density and low-density spaces unfold, creating an intermittent play of informal areas oriented to study, research, play and relationship with nature.
The NO-STOP School project occurs in the “in-between” spaces: these are the threshold spaces that relate the classroom to the school system on one hand, and to the nature system on the other. The ambivalence of architectural margins determines their functional adaptability. These spaces, often unused or not existing in traditional construction, can become open and flexible rooms such as study or break time areas, meeting spaces or areas dedicated to the collection of books and educational materials. Re-programmable, flexible and transformable spaces.
Continuity between structure and nature is essential in the NO-STOP School project. It is important to emphasise that the transformation of school buildings must be inside-out, from the pedagogical core to the outer architectural style, not vice versa. In fact, the class is the project generator. According to a laboratory approach, the class becomes an articulated form that facilitates small groups and interclass teaching: it is divided into modules that welcome multiple activities at the same time, it is a continuous space that allows students to alternatively develop concentration or relationship skills. In addition, the “space within space” multiplies learning opportunities and allows students to feel involved in their own activities while guaranteeing the right measures for a just exchange of ideas.
Proceeding from the classroom outwards, we find the key-space of the project: the open-air classroom. It is a covered, glazed volume with variable flooring, where educational activities take place next to the classroom. This space defines the relationship with nature and, like a greenhouse, it is transformed into an open-air class where teaching can extend its traditional physical limits. This is not a “green” box, nor a pass-through space. It is an extension of the classroom and it channels educational activities. Having such filter-spaces today, at the time of the pandemic, would make it easier to imagine a back-to-school season during a second phase of cohabitation and controlled management of the virus. Space resilience is our lifeline in complex situations of space restriction and social distancing.
Inner courtyards also multiply the exchange between outdoor and indoor. In a school where students spend most of their days, it is important that natural light, air and the peace of time enter through the walls and into teaching, not only to give a measure but also to ensure moments of connection with the outdoor, both virtually and physically. Technological equipment and appropriate fittings, materials and color choices define these micro-spaces that allow the environment to fragment, multiply, but also interrupt, create filters, and ensure a small-scale flexibility for the management of lights, data and environmental detectors. This means breaking down what is no longer needed, turning existing walls into new porous barriers that control the mechanisms of the whole school system.
Roofing too needs to be re-functionalised. How much walkable areas could we get by turning traditional roofs into living roofs? NO-STOP School features roofs with plants and vegetables gardens to both feed the imagination and experience a new perspective on the world. School entrances function as filters: lightweight materials structures and plants create an “in-between” space suitable to accommodate the hybrid technologies that can facilitate detection and ensure the health and well-being for children, educators and families.
School is one place for restart. If it shines in the urban fabric, it can also work as an amplifier of that sparkle. School is where students, educators and society meet and together lay the foundations for the future of an economic, ecological, cultural and social sustainability. Today’s now new functions will be soon replaced by tomorrow’s ones, thus school buildings must anticipate the transience and instantaneousness of our connected world. The technological connection of the school of the future must become a physical connection: spaces must expand organically into a continuous osmosis from inside out and vice versa. In this sense, school is the investment of today: if young generations will be able to take care of their mental, physical, intellectual well-being, and planet earth, the starting line is marked, and we are at the starting blocks. All is left is the gun going off.