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Thinking outside the usual white box

by Teru Clavel

Special To The Japan Times

Imagine being a meter tall and dashing around the donut-shaped roof of your school. Or picture studying math while taking in the rich smell of timber in one of a variety of wooden houses connected by a single three-story atrium, or attending a zero-carbon wooden school in the forest.

Far removed from the standardized post-World War II white concrete boxes that dot the country, these schools represent an innovative direction the Japanese educational system could take. Takaharu and Yui Tezuka, Kengo Kuma and Ben Nakamura, the acclaimed architects behind the designs, are committed to creating educational environments to cultivate and inspire the next generation.

Fuji Kindergarten

When first meeting Takaharu and Yui, the husband-and-wife team who created Fuji Kindergarten, I was immediately drawn to their playful spirit.

“Our architecture is about family — everything we learn, everything we do about architecture starts with our family,” says Takaharu. The Tezukas have two young children.

The architects’ motto is: “If you don’t know happiness, how can you provide it to others?”

Located in Tachikawa, western Tokyo, the 750-student, three-year preschool built in 2007 is a one-story structure in the shape of a donut. The entire school feels like a playground, from the open-air central courtyard to the building’s wide circular roof. Even the interior classroom areas follow an open-school plan where partitions separate sections and all furniture is moveable. Takaharu says the goal is for “these children to be stronger and more flexible.”

For an adult, the traffic patterns on the ground floor, center courtyard and roof may look dizzying. However, studies have shown that children at Fuji invent and play six times the number of games that a typical kindergarten student plays; the average Fuji student runs about 5 km each day.

“And they aren’t even being chased!” Takaharu jokes.

For the kids at Fuji, a noisy environment is thought to improve concentration.

“Noise is fundamental,” Takaharu says. “These days the government is trying to set rules to create perfect acoustic conditions — in those buildings there is no noise and children get nervous. Autistic children start showing symptoms.”

He explains how the body has a “noise-cancellation system” and that hearing noises from multiple sources, such as the class next door, can have a calming effect.

The open plan also helps foster social equality.

“When children are put in a classroom and have boundaries, they develop a hierarchy and caste system — here, there is no need,” Takaharu says. The building has sliding doors that face the courtyard and remain open for two-thirds of the year.

“We do not need to make airtight buildings. We should keep windows open, so children can be in a normal environment,” he says.

The Tezukas incorporated several other innovations at Fuji. One of these was making the ceiling height 2.1 meters, going against the Education Ministry’s 3-meter standard. This way anything happening on the roof can be seen from the ground floor. In response to Fuji’s success, the ministry dropped the ceiling-height restriction and asked Yui to sit on its construction committee.

Three 25-meter zelkova trees grow from the ground and through the roof, while nets stretch around the trees so that as many as 100 children can climb them at a time.

The Tezukas believe that without risk there is no reward, so they aim to create spaces in which children can make their own mistakes and grow. Takaharu says he feels children today are overprotected and pampered — he mentions the term “helicopter parenting.”

“If you make buildings too safe, children lose the opportunity to learn about danger,” he says. “I think it’s important to leave some amount of danger. The principal of the kindergarten said that because children these days don’t usually break their legs and arms, there’s a greater chance they might break their necks or spines later in life. It’s important to see injury. Japanese children are getting weaker and weaker.”

In 2011, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development named Fuji Kindergarten the most exemplary of all educational facilities in the world, chosen from 166 submissions from 33 countries. Although the Tezukas have won more than a dozen awards for their educational buildings, this one has clearly given them international recognition as innovators in educating through architectural design.

Teikyo Elementary School

Kengo Kuma is one of the most celebrated architects in Japan. For him, school design is about returning to his own educational experiences and creating spaces reminiscent of the traditional timber school house he was educated in as a child.

“I had a great experience in a wooden building,” he says. “I still remember the smell of the wooden school and the texture of the wood flooring. Every day, we cleaned the floors by ourselves — every day with the zōkin (floor cloth). The texture of wood and the smell of wood is very much connected to our daily lives and our Japanese memory. When the concrete school buildings came to Japan, we lost that experience. I want to transfer that experience to a new generation.”

Teikyo Elementary School, which is affiliated with Teikyo University, was the first educational building Kuma designed. Built in 2012, it’s a three-story, 8,000-sq. meter private school located in Tama, a suburb of Tokyo. Significant to the construction was employing traditional materials through contemporary technology. Natural materials with a distinct smell, such as the igusa (straw reeds) that are traditionally used for tatami mats, and wara (grass straw) were recycled and used for the walls of the classrooms and open spaces.

Before starting on the design, Kuma met with students and asked them to draw their ideal school. He says the children drew traditionally roofed houses made out of natural materials.

“They don’t like boxes,” he says. “The post-World War II boxes do not fit the environment.”

Therefore, Teikyo’s north-facing exterior looks like 12 different traditional homes built in a row that share a large roof with varying angles and heights. The south exposure, which gets the most natural light, overlooks the school’s verdant playing field.

Kuma believes the role of the structure’s angled roof is integral in creating the community beneath it.

“It’s similar to the space of a house,” he says. “The house should have an angled roof because the roof can give a sense of center to the space. Without a center, its identity will disappear. In the 20th century, the flat roof destroyed the center to the space and destroyed the identity of the space. Now we can finally return to the center of the community.”

Designing a school for children presented Kuma with new and enjoyable challenges. For example, unlike his commercial projects, where the interior doesn’t change, he points out that in a school, children will change the space every day. So, by employing an open-plan design, the interior space is meant to be adaptable.

“For the school, I think the most important thing is flexibility,” he says. “Students are continuously changing and schools should reflect the changes of life.

“We must avoid separation. For kids to enjoy the flexibility of the space, we created a one-room school.”

When asked about the amount of noise that can carry throughout a school with open classrooms, like the Tezukas, Kuma says silence from compartmentalized classrooms is something to be avoided.

“I think complete silence is not good for education,” he says. “Noises are comforting for kids. This is similar to architectural ideas — architectural design always has many ‘noises,’ and if it’s too simple and abstract, it’s not comfortable for kids. But if some noises exist in the space, the kids will not be nervous.”

Kuma believes preparing the right environments for students is one of the most important tasks facing our society.

“If the environment can be a good influence on a student, it can change the future of our society. I would like to do more school design for this reason.”

Nanasawa Kibounooka

Ben Nakamura is committed to the use of nature and renewable sources of energy in his designs. His office prominently displays various high-tech solar panels and dozens of raw and polished wood samples. Nakamura has been designing schools since the 1970s, including Katoh Gakuen, Japan’s first open-plan school, and St. Mary’s International School, both of which are in Tokyo.

“Fundamentally, education for children must inspire curiosity, a sense of discovery, fascination, creativity and emotion — it should be able to give many answers to the same question,” he says. “Teachers can use various teaching materials, tell stories and teach the children directly whereas architects can answer children’s questions through their environment.”

Completed in 2008, Nanasawa Kibounooka Elementary School, located in Atsugi, Kanagawa Prefecture, stands like a large lodge in the middle of a forest. It has floor-to-ceiling windows that let in natural light filtered by the trees outdoors. Ninety percent of the construction materials and 60 percent of the interior fixtures are made of wood. The school’s energy sources include rainwater, biomass recycling and geothermal heating, minimizing the school’s carbon footprint.

The design of Nanasawa clearly reflects the school’s pedagogy. Employing the Reggio Emilia approach in which students of various ages study together, the curriculum is self-guided, and the learning is individualistic — children move on their own to different activity and lesson islands to grow their strengths. At the school, students engage in a comprehensive education with peers counter to the more results-oriented and, in the case of Japan, teacher-centered practices of today.

Nakamura believes that placed in a more natural setting, people can relax and be more focused and productive.

“Nature is alive and deep, unlike many of today’s concrete schools,” he says. “Nature represents seeds of wonder — the best source of wonder. There is an interaction with nature that gives off energy. Exposure to the raw and gasa-gasa (ragged) touch of timber and not the shiny and polished man-made version of wood is necessary.”

In addition, the architect makes sure all spaces — from the stairs to the corridors and locker areas — are maximized in his schools.

The overall wavelike angled plan of the building follows the path of the trees in the forest — walking through it feels like taking a stroll through the woods.

“In the school, there are no purely rectangular shapes like in a home because they would create straight lines that do not occur in nature,” Nakamura says. Thus the roof was constructed to feel like it was light and floating in order to blend with — not overpower — the surroundings.

“It is most important to understand one’s individuality, to develop into a creative person and to understand one’s unique strengths,” the architect says. “That is what I think of as one’s ikiruchikara — the power with which to live. This is how I wanted to create Nanasawa.”

Although these schools are private, many new schools being constructed in Japan are being encouraged to feature open-plan interiors. Since choosing schools is becoming increasingly possible, there’s a good chance many children will be able to attend schools of this type in the future.

However, with 90 percent of all school design defaults to the standardized white concrete box, the work of the Tezukas, Kuma and Nakamura are beacons of hope integral to national efforts to cultivate Japan’s next generation. Their numerous education projects in the rebuilding of the Tohoku area are sure to attract national attention and could become models for future schools throughout the country.

A continuation of this article on March 17 will examine how learning spaces are being adapted by teachers after they have been designed by top architects and the associated learning outcomes. Send comments on this topic and story ideas to community@japantimes.co.jp.

  • GBR48

    Improved and creative design in school buildings is wonderful, but it’s important not to do it at the expense of up to a third of the children. I’m guessing the architects here don’t suffer from hayfever.

    As a child, the greatest impediment to my own education was the natural world. My love of nature was an unrequited one: in return, it made me sneeze. A lot. With exams in the UK in the summer, the effect was exacerbated. Now, in the twenty-first century, we have the technology to take the excessive cold, heat, humidity, pollutants and allergens out of the educational environment in which we place our children. That should not be casually tossed aside simply because your architect either doesn’t suffer from, and doesn’t understand how damaging the constant misery of hayfever can be to your concentration.

    The natural world is lovely, but a third of us need a bit of protection from it in our homes, offices and places of work.

    Some aspects of the designs above will cause a good deal of suffering to as many as a third of the children involved, and actively reduce their educational opportunities.

  • Dave Jones

    I can’t comment on the hay fever issue but these schools look pretty amazing. Growing up I went to regular schools that looked like regular schools everywhere else in the world. In fact if someone had asked me to “re-design” a school I probably wouldn’t have had a clue … because in my head a school is just a school: boxy building, maybe a field outside, all right angles and straight lines — serious and straightforward. I also can’t comment on whether the architecture really can influence children’s intellectual development but if we can look at these photos and feel something special then our children should be able to as well

  • Jim

    All three of these schools look like beautiful, stimulating learning environments, and I applaud their creativity. However, I wonder how these ideas can be employed in schools in denser urban areas, like in central Tokyo. These schools all are in more suburban or rural areas, which gives them more space and natural area to work with. Especially for public schools in central Tokyo, acquiring the space needed for such schools may be prohibitively costly. I hope that education officials can work with such architects to learn how to adapt and apply these methods for urban schools.

  • Y Suzuki

    It is exciting to think about how the children in this article will grow up around nature and how their overall learning will grow. These schools seem like utopias and I hope this article will open people’s eyes to creating more inspiring spaces and rich educational environments.

    Looking back to when I was a child, I have great feelings of nostalgia — the structures I used to always play with in kindergarten, the playground, the feeling of the hand rails on the stairs, the arrangement of the room, the stage in the auditorium, and the nearby river with water that always flowed so beautifully…

    Experiences in such fun and dream-filled elementary schools will nurture personal development. I wish I could have sent my children to Fuji kindergarten!

  • Lawrence B Goodman

    I complement you on your being able to access the architects. The schools are fascinating. I haven’t seen anything like this in America. I do wonder if they are economically viable. Nevertheless, the children who do experience these environments are fortunate indeed.