The SanHe Kindergarten, a 5,000m² educational building for 540 children on the outskirts of Beijing, is next to a residential complex designed by Chinese architects including more than 2,000,000m² of housing.
The building proposes to young minds an arrangement in triads that might be both familiar and easy to remember. There are three wings in the building with three classrooms in each wing. Each of the three wings also has three floors; there are also three stairs in the interior, etc. This arrangement into triads matches many things, not only the basic logical structures into which all of us are born: left/right/middle; yes/no/maybe; space/time/objects; and so on, but also the triad mother/father/child common in a country where, until very recently, the policy of one child per family has been the law of the land.
The rigorously fenestrated concrete structure clad in local brick is configured as a faceted arc that, leaning against the north edge of the site, embraces a play-ground surrounded by a garden of local Chouchun trees (Ailanthus altissima) and of Peking Cotoneaster bushes (Cotoneaster acutifolius). The large playground, flanked to the north by the kindergarten and to the south by the garden is the soul and focus of the whole architectural arrangement. The building’s facade is articulated with extreme simplicity by windows of the same size. This homogeneity creates a background against which sequences of stair-connected terraces are inserted into the façade of the building, disrupting their order with spaces for outdoor learning and paths of direct connection between classroom and playground.
Classrooms are designed in a manner analogous to a typical New York City artist loft, with four-meter-high ceilings and a sleeping mezzanine over the bathroom and storage facilities where the children can take naps in the afternoons. In the typical Chinese kindergarten, the furniture gets rearranged twice daily, first substituting tables with sleeping cots in preparation for nap-time and then back to work tables during the rest of the day. The arrangement in two levels with dedicated nap-time space will save the teachers enough furniture-rearranging hours to spend 20% more time teaching every year. The children access the school from the west under a large conical canopy, and, during reluctant mornings, the ramped entry enlists gravity to hurry the children towards their classrooms. The articulation of the building’s mass into smaller pavilion-like structures aims to reduce the perceived size of the building, distancing it from the institutional to approach the domestic, since for these children, it might be traumatic to confront the vast scales of Chinese institutional buildings for the first time.
School, in a way, can be thought of as a still life: the vast variety of the world, tamed (stilled) and offered to the examination of the students as a representation, interpreted (particularly in a place like China). It is the job of the student to see through this and develop a personal and independent opinion to transcend the representation, get behind the appearance and give her idea of the world a unique structure, one comprehensible to her. This is, of course, in the case of good students, a never-ending task. A kindergarten is then only the beginning of a process that lasts a lifetime and that exposes the children to an experience that includes both the development of life as a social being, together with others, and the process of education which is in the end always self-education, in which things need to be figured out by one self, through observation, logical reasoning and imagination. The idea of a still life as a slice of the world in which, as a sample, the mystery of life is momentarily arrested from our examination, seems now a fitting metaphor for education. The process is long, and if we are curious, we are all bound to become eternal students.
It is said Cezanne was so fastidious in his quest to try to capture the real being of apples in his still lifes that the apples would rot before he had a chance to finish. It is said that it would take him 100 sessions to paint a still life and when it came to that special type, the portrait, he would tax the patience of his models with 150 sessions. It was not time invested in painting but rather observing, trying to learn. It is said that he would go into trance-like moments in the observation of a detail that could last an hour before he could put brush to canvas to try to capture it. His obsession was with depth and his aim, not to create a picture, but a piece of nature. He was influenced by Tintoretto who had posted in his Venetian studio the slogan of his aspiration: “the drawing of Michelangelo and the color of Titian!” Cezanne interpreted this as a dictum for the indivisibility of sensory experience, the rationality of point, line, plane and ratio embroidered in drawing, and the emotional range of color, texture, sound and odor. He believed we should be able to taste and smell a properly painted apple. Color then fulfilled an important role in a representation of the real, steadfastly focused on facts and not on overlaid interpretative structure, such as propaganda.
We propose then an idea of the design of the interior of our kindergarten in Beijing to treat each classroom like an apple in a still life. To give the experience of using the building, not the homogeneous uniformity of a single finish, but to try to use color to foster an identity amongst classrooms that teaches the vast variety of things and literally becomes the deep space where the children learn. Seen from outside, the building appears as a three-dimensional frame, homogeneous in color, texture and articulation, perhaps working somehow a bit like a large vitrine where all classrooms are exposed as so many different specimens, side by side. The exterior works like a protective armature separating the classrooms from the contaminated environment of the growing city, a protective shell whose functionality demands simplicity and repetition, qualities that are dis-articulated by the randomly placed terraces and stairs that connect the classrooms to the playground.