At Beijing's Garden School, students can sit on outdoor stairs to hear lectures, gather for talks along an open-air corridor, and plant vegetables on the roof. “Confucius taught under a tree, and Louis Kahn taught his students on the lawn,” explains Huang Wenjing, partner at Beijing-based OPEN Architecture. But designing a Chinese high school to promote out-of-classroom teaching seems a radical idea. Strict building codes and a historically rigorous educational system typically produce standardized schools with a running track as the only outdoor space. But OPEN's competition-winning design, employed by an enlightened administration, offers opportunities beyond the chalkboard.
The largest green space is a vegetable garden on the building's roof deck. The school currently has only 180 of its planned 1,000'1,200 students enrolled, but when it fills up, each of its 36 classes will tend their own plot. In the school's first months of operation, one class planted an experimental garden, and local farmers tended the rest of the plots.
All this attention to the school's outdoor space does not come at the expense of its interiors. Above ground, the building appears as a lively asymmetrical structure with a central trunk for circulation and eight branches holding classrooms, labs, and administrative offices. Large windowed forms project from various branches and provide flexible spaces for relaxing and socializing. Similar projections extend from a detached dormitory that houses the senior high school students (junior high students live locally).
The school is spatially dynamic. Its main lobby—accessed from the street through a long, low gate and across a large plaza—may look convoluted in plan, but works well as a link to various stairways and levels. The classrooms themselves are simple boxes, but other spaces assume bold shapes. The library, for example, stretches out as a long, curving volume, while the cafeteria is an expansive, dome-shaped room. Sculptural stairways make walking among seven floors interesting (only the teachers can use the elevators).
Details too are well conceived, such as the simple fluorescent tubes set in a hexagonal pattern and the multimedia equipment closets composed in Mondrian-like grids. Colorful igloo-like pavilions dot the central spine, offering spaces for music, relaxing, and other activities.
Of course, it is one thing to design indoor and outdoor spaces with flexibility in mind and quite another for them to be used effectively. Garden School Principal Huang Chun says that while it may be inconvenient for educators to use unconventional spaces, the unfamiliar can stimulate creative teaching. He and his faculty are still exploring how to exploit the school's architecture for teaching opportunities, following the philosophy of its progressive model, Beijing No. 4's esteemed program on its main campus. Already one section of a wide corridor is home to small craft stations for woodworking, terrarium-making, and textile arts.
The school is part of the Changyang new town in Beijing's Fangshan District, beyond the fifth ring road. OPEN principal Li Hu credits developer Vanke—which built the school for the city and has developed residences in the area—with encouraging sustainability. In addition to its gardens and planted roof, the school includes a geothermal heat pump, rainwater retention basins, and other green features. The school is awaiting China 3 Star designation, which would make it the first school in the country with this top green rating.
OPEN designed Garden School to be a good neighbor. Students' parents can use the library, and plans call for the community to have access to the dormitory swimming pool. An 800-seat auditorium with a separate entrance is available for non-school events. In November, principals from around China gathered there to discuss the teaching methodology of Beijing No. 4 and learn how to create a school that supports it. “During its 100-year history, Beijing No. 4 was always the avant-garde in education in China,” says Principal Huang. “Now it is the avant-garde in campus design.”
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Gross square footage:
169,800 square feet (57,773 m')