There is no one right way to improve education. Education has been a widely discussed topic for decades now; the reason being there is always room for improvement and more discoveries happening on how to get there. When it comes to impacting education, the design of the learning space itself is often overlooked. Perhaps the very first need is to create a space where people can congregate and learn. This typically includes some kind of covered structure that protects the inhabitants from the elements and in many cases regulates factors such as light, temperate, and sound in order to create a conducive learning environment. Although these factors do indeed affect children’s performance and ability to learn, many designers feel there is a responsibility to go beyond these norms and create environments that truly foster learning.
While in still school, I researched how design helps people develop a sense of identity; one way I found interesting was educational spaces. In my research I explored the work of Herman Hertzberger and his design for the Montessori School in 1960-1966 in Delft, Holland. I find Hertzberger's work interesting because it is different than the form follows function idea that many designers use today, yet his designs are still very effective. The Montessori school is just one example of how design can be harnessed to promote education.
Hertzberger believed that “design is a framework where its users can decide how to inhabit it.” He hoped to inspire curiosity and foster a connection between learning and the environment where it takes place. In a typical school design, boundaries are created by dividing spaces up for different uses. However, in the Montessori school, boundaries are not created to be barriers but rather “as an invitation for exploration”. Hertzbereger used a variety of tactics to involve the children in the architecture such as placing windows at child height and creating deep window ledges to allow for display and interaction. The classrooms were designed in an L-shape in order to blur the hierarchy between teacher and students, again allowing students to feel control in their own education and lives. The L-shaped layout also allows for separate activities to take place in the space. Another way Hertzberger divided space was by sinking part of the classroom down several steps along with lowering the ceiling height to allow for independence and privacy for the students still within the surveillance of the teacher. In addition each classrooms also has an enclosed coatroom with seating and storage that acts as a transitional zone for students and teachers. Hertzberger believed that these types of “in-between” spaces were necessary for promoting human interaction.
The unique design of this school was not limited to the layout; materials were carefully selected to invoke the same sense of exploration as the physical space. Many of the spaces use unfinished concrete blocks for walls. It was Hertzberger’s idea that these unfinished blocks call upon the users to decided how to utilize the space. The school also utilizes Dutch doors because they allow for the safety and privacy of a typical door but they also offer the option of opening to the community while still employing a sense of safety. Materials that make the user feel safe and secure are important when trying to promote human growth. Typically when you think of the materiality of schools you may first consider durability to be the most important, but safety is also a major concern when dealing with children and is a strong factor in many design decisions.
Whether you are analyzing the structural for safety, the opportunity for growth, or the specific physical attributes of a child, it is hard to ignore these design decision's effect on educational environments. The Montessori school is a timeless example of how thoughtful design choices can shape a space. Whether you have limited resources or a limited budget, there are many ways to create a space that will improve how a child can learn.
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