Issue 01-02/24

How a Construction Process can Succeed

Angelika Lonnemann

Erziehungskunst | When Waldorf schools need new buildings, an exciting process usually begins.

Dunselman | Yes, but we also notice in our practice that construction today is often perceived as a great burden. Sometimes you get the feeling – and this doesn't just apply to Waldorf schools – that it would be better to think about this process from the other side. In other words, construction not as something burdensome, but rather as an opportunity, a chance to shape one's own identity and put something good into the world. At the end of the 1990s, I studied and experienced the impressive tradition of content at Waldorf schools in the 1970s and 1980s, how the content-related processes were approached and what original buildings were then realized: these were buildings as an expression of an educational vision. And that simply raises the question for me: how can you design such a process together today? How do you get from the actual content to a contemporary architecture that provides answers to today's pedagogical questions?

Van der Ree | The initial question for us – and this also interests us as the Section for Visual Art – is: How can architecture - in this case for a school building or school campus – be used to support children's development? The social situation is changing, children are no longer the same as they were 30 or 40 years ago. They come with different needs, they have to deal with different challenges. In the Netherlands, it's also different to Germany. Schools are faced with different questions. And ideas for the design can be developed from these pedagogical questions. So the desire to support children's development is the starting point for the construction process. In the schools I built for in the early 1990s, there was a highly motivated teaching staff. The school itself was the client for the building. 15 to 20 years later, one of these schools wanted an extension. I returned to the school, somewhat with my expectations from back then that I would find a motivated team who would be happy to talk to me about the extension. But then all the teachers were far too busy, they felt overwhelmed by the issue and they had handed the building over to the local authority, which was really only interested in completing the building on time and within budget. There were no more substantive aspects from the school that we should take into account! I was disappointed. There is currently a tendency for construction to become much more complicated with all the parameters. Process consultants are then brought in, but little attention is paid to the content. Unfortunately, you can sometimes see this in the result (Van der Ree laughs). That's why we want to encourage schools as developers to ask: «What do you actually need, what do the children need, what does the school community need?» – not to make the project more expensive, but to create something that supports rather than hinders and possibly makes more demands on teachers.

EK | How can this be achieved today? Many teachers are so overwhelmed with work demands that they don't want to devote any more time to school.

YD | I have noticed an interesting phenomenon. When I have worked with schools other than Waldorf schools, the schools have previously specified the content of a room program in which, for example, the rooms should be adapted to the age of the children or that movement in the room should be part of the lessons, that nature and the seasons are important, that the seasons must also be brought into the building. Then I had the impression - Ah, that could also come from a Waldorf school. That's where the Waldorf-specific aspect from the periphery comes to me. And then I would like to call on Waldorf schools to clearly define the future-oriented content of their pedagogy, so that this can be reflected in exemplary architecture.

We need an awareness of the possibilities of shaping the project together in a construction process. This does not necessarily have to take a lot of time. But it is a question of awareness as to whether we take responsibility together as a school community and architect in order to find motifs in a process that can be designed from the content.

PVdR | You could almost turn it around: Pre-thinking a building is often perceived as a burden, but one could also understand the joint occupation as an offer not to burden the teachers, but to support them so that they can do their work better. If this works well, it is not a vain self-promotion of the architect, but a self-promotion of pedagogy. This can also help the teacher. I once gave a workshop for kindergarten teachers and they were given an extension to their building. And the architect who had worked on it had probably thought «children need a lot of light» and then made three glass walls and a rising roof. The teachers were really desperate because the room was so open that the children couldn't find their way into the play area. It took the teachers a lot of effort to calm the children down and in their distress they helped themselves by building little houses with cloths in the room. In other words, if you don't ask the children what they need beforehand, it can cost a lot of energy afterwards.

EK | What advice do you have for schools going into a construction process?

PVdR | The schools can of course do something in advance, but as architects we also offer a small series of workshops in which important topics can be developed. Of course, not the entire staff has to take part, but representatives from the most important areas, especially the people who feel attracted to this process. There are usually individuals in the faculty who are particularly interested and they should be able to participate. It is important that the decision-makers, the employees, the financial controllers –that they are all involved.

YD | As architects, we are passers-by. We come, are present for a short time and then leave again. But we shape something through the design that remains for a long time and in which the school community has an impact for many years. That's why it's so important for us to look through the eyes of the people who use the school, to know what is important to them, what kind of environment they want to live and teach in. As a father, I find it difficult to bring up three children. In one class, 30 children are «educated». What is decisive for this? What works, what doesn't work? We are specialists as architects, but not as educators. That's why this process in which we connect with the school community is so important.

PVdR | The nice thing is that as an architect you can take part in the pedagogy, in the teaching, in such a process. But the teachers should also take an interest in the architecture. What are the elements that you can or must decide on? Perhaps teachers first think about their own classrooms – the size, the height, the colors, the light. But there is also the school as an overall organism, there are the materials, the corridors, the outdoor space, the relationship between indoor and outdoor space. So there are many elements that you have to decide on when designing a building. Sometimes I feel like there's an infinite amount of decisions you have to make and that's intimidating. But you have to have a reason why you're making a room white or light blue or dark, for example. And if you conduct a few workshops or visual design sessions before the actual planning process, then you can work together to find the reasons why which room should be designed in which way. And that helps the architect in the design process and that helps the community to assess a design. If it goes well, then people can see in the design what they wanted beforehand. Then they can also say, stop, this element isn't right yet, we wanted more light. Then a common ground of understanding is formed.

EK | How long should the process take before the actual planning?

YD | This varies and depends on the size of the project. We aim for at least two workshops to get to grips with the issues. In this phase, we hold back on the planning. The content of these workshops is then consolidated later in the design process. They then merge into one another. Overall, it doesn't have to take more time, you just have to set up the time process differently. If the architects make a design right away and then the school community says – oh, we don't like it, let's do something new!  That would waste much, much more time. Instead, you go into a process that becomes more and more condensed – and that is then also very effective and you can then come up with something strong, something convincing in terms of content.

PVdR | And ideally, this process should not only be carried out with a principal or the school management, but also with the teachers and parents, as they also bring new points of view to the table. Parents may have concerns such as a library or the design of the outdoor space. It is often also very helpful and clarifying when the different groups hear each other's concerns. I remember at the first Waldorf school I planned, the class teachers had the impression that "we are a community of school and kindergarten". The kindergarten teachers, on the other hand, didn't feel that their specific needs were being heard. And in a design process, something like this can suddenly come to light and a new mutual perception can begin. This is also very valuable for mutual understanding.

YD | During one of our current construction projects, there were teachers who said how wonderful it was that parents were no longer allowed into the school building because of the coronavirus. A report like this then comes from the workshop, where parents can also express themselves and say how they feel about it. This is a very important question for a school community - do parents come in or stay out, also in a figurative sense. So important processes come to light within a social community. This is important and should be addressed and shaped!

PVdR | As architects, we had never before realized how important it is for parents to be able to meet in the school yard when dropping off or picking up their children. That's communication, that's where initiatives and creativity for parties and working groups are born. This shouldn't necessarily happen between cars in the rain! If we plan in such a way that we give space to such encounters without them interfering with the educational process, then architecture supports community. By the way, sending the signal to parents that you'd better stay outside is also not helpful if you ever need donations for school projects. (Van der Ree laughs)

Rudolf Steiner was once asked, how does one actually arrive at organic architecture? And one might have expected a very long, complex answer or a suggestion to study Goethe first. In fact, he answered seemingly concisely: «You ask yourself what happens.» So if you form a vivid idea of everything that happens and is supposed to happen there, then images are already formed internally. If, on the other hand, you have an abstract spatial program in which you have an overview of the square meters, then no images form in your head. But if you imagine the children arriving, taking off their jackets, unpacking an instrument – then design ideas come up at the same time.

A Waldorf school is a Waldorf school - and yet each one is different and can change over time. That's why you always have to look at how things are here and now at this school.

EK | Are you also involved with school furniture and school interiors? Traditionally, teaching at Waldorf schools was frontal, but this seems to be changing in many schools at the moment.

YD | Yes, when we go through the process with the schools, this is also one of our questions because we can see that this is a strong topic in public schools. Traditionally, schools had classrooms and hallways. Today in the Netherlands, the classrooms in public schools are getting smaller and the hallways are getting bigger. The hallways also become rooms for learning and in some schools, there is no longer an age-appropriate separation into a sixth and a seventh grade, but mixed-age groups are formed. That has developed greatly. And when we come to Waldorf schools, I still hear a lot of uncertainty, do we still have to give frontal teaching, do we still need classrooms or do we have to become flexible. Often the direction of the content is not yet available and has not been discussed. But then there is exactly the exciting question: How does the Waldorf school want to organize the content? What is right for today's children? And this can then be designed individually. You don't have to do either frontally or flexibly; there is still a lot of scope for individual solutions in between. It is still very common for each class in Waldorf schools to have its own color; that is an important background to the content, and one could also rethink it. Don't leave it alone but use the content to shape it for today.

PVdR | You also have to focus on the children. Some children need their designated place in the classroom that provides them with a boundary. They are overwhelmed when given complete freedom. Infinite freedom is not always the highest happiness. I gave a workshop for students of pedagogy and asked about architectural experiences and then one student drew a sketch from her school days. It showed a cupboard below the stairs in her parents' house, where she always retreated after school. School was such an emotional overload of impressions for her that she voluntarily sat down in the dark closet under the stairs at home. She sat on a vacuum cleaner and struck sparks with a flintstone. And this continued until she came to herself again. I was amazed and learned that school can also be overwhelming.

When I was still at school, school was just part of my day. Beforehand, I had a quiet breakfast with the family. After school I came home, my mother was there, we ate together, and in the afternoon, I played alone or with friends. So school was just a part of my everyday life as a child and part of a more or less healthy environment. We have the impression that the demands on schools today are greater and higher. In the Netherlands there are schools where children go to school in the morning without breakfast. They have to get something to eat first, otherwise they won't be able to concentrate on the lesson. The school assumes part of the care and support of the child.

Everyday school life takes up so much space and time for the child that the room must take on many additional tasks: the child has to move around the school, they have to notice the elements and seasons, animals or growth. Originally this was not a task of the school, but rather something that took place in normal children's lives. But when normal life no longer allows, the school needs take over.

Angelika Lonnemann asked the questions.  


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