Architecture & design

Seen and heard

As childcare facilities become more prevalent in the contemporary workplace, serious money is being invested into designing spaces specifically for young users. We speak to Daniel Sudlin of BIG, Alexandra Barker of BFDO Architects, and Taku Hibino of Hibino Sekkei, about potential teething problems in a discipline still in its relative infancy.

When Second Home London Fields opens later this year, it will have all the hallmarks of the original Second Home in Spitalfields. A design-led space for startups and entrepreneurs, it will maintain the bright colours and biophilic flourishes of its predecessor (including a tree-lined staircase). Unlike its predecessor, however, it will also incorporate a crèche and other child-oriented facilities, in a bid to help more working parents start businesses.

According to co-founder Rohan Silva, the aim is to create ‘the most family-friendly working environment in the city’. Childcare facilities in workspaces are not yet particularly common, but with more parents seeking flexible working arrangements, demand for such provisions is increasing.

“I’m painfully aware that our city doesn’t make it easy to be a working parent… The issue is childcare, because London is one of the worst cities in the developed world when it comes to affordable provision,” he wrote in the Evening Standard.

The building, then, places child-friendliness at the heart of its design. The flooring in the public spaces is made from recycled car tyres, and the café tables have rounded edges – reducing the risk that an exploratory toddler will injure herself.

The crèche itself, meanwhile, is architecturally contiguous with the adult workspace, echoing its distinctive colours and shapes. It’s hard to resist the conclusion that kids are entrepreneurs in the making, or that entrepreneurs should think like kids. Or, to put it another way, that the boundary between work and play is artificial.

Across the Atlantic, the WeGrow project (an offshoot of the co-working company WeWork) is set to open in September. An elementary school set inside the company’s New York headquarters, WeGrow will take a progressive approach to education. This means a curriculum in which spirituality, farming and ‘conscious eating’ feature as prominently as maths and science.

Schools for entrepreneurs

Billing itself as ‘conscious, entrepreneurial’, WeGrow intends to replicate the WeWork ethos of integrating work and purpose. “In my book, there’s no reason why children in elementary schools can’t be launching their own businesses,” said co-founder Rebekah Neumann in an interview.

Whether or not that’s realistic, the founders do envision a day when there’s a WeGrow school at each of the WeWork locations. The aim is to give parents more time to spend with their kids, as well as undoing the compartmentalisation often found in school environments.

“The WeGrow school embeds the values of a new conscious approach to education,” says Daniel Sudlin, partner at BIG, which is designing the flagship facility. “The space of the school aspires to support the growth of the mind, body and soul of the 21st century child. Playful and transparent, yet homelike and structured, WeGrow nurtures the child’s education through introspection, exploration and discovery.”

In practice, this means open, interactive spaces. The materials are natural and rustic, and the colours understated, but the design has a futurist bent. As Sudlin puts it, the team tried to dream up a ‘school universe’ from the child’s perspective.

“A field of super-elliptic objects forms a learning landscape that’s dense and rational, yet free and fluid,” he says. “Modular classrooms, tree houses, digital portals and a vertical farm promote an inclusive and collaborative learning environment. Acoustic clouds, natural materials and neutral colors create a calm setting for the child’s focused study.”

If this approach sounds overly theoretical, it’s worth remembering that kindergarten design is an inherently theoretical discipline. Perhaps uniquely among design typologies, the end-users’ opinions matter less than your opinions about those end-users.

Through a child’s eyes

This means, whether you’re a Victorian disciplinarian designing an austere classroom, or a modern architect creating a play area, you’re buying into certain ideas about child development.

According to Alexandra Barker at BFDO Architects, the last ten years or so have seen a shift towards more flexible spaces.

“There is more of an emphasis on keeping toys and spaces abstract to allow for more open-ended play,” she says. “Unexpected visual connections, colors, and textures that surprise and perform in multiple ways allow children to bring their own imagination to a space.”

Last year, the firm designed a Brookyn preschool in collaboration with 4|Mativ Design Studio. The Maple Street School, which is designed to feel like ‘an extension of the home’, emphasises cooperation, curiosity and play.

“The school design followed the pedagogy of the school’s director, Wendy Cole, which emphasises parent involvement, and connections to the community of parents and the neighborhood,” explains Barker. “The school day begins with a social hour called cafe time, which collects the children together before starting their day in their classrooms. Modeled after a food truck, it has a service window and counter for adults to use, as well as a counter at toddler-height that folds in when not in use.”

As this example demonstrates, one of the chief considerations when designing a kindergarten is a very basic one – namely the small size of its users. Architects need to understand how the space will look through a child’s eyes, while ensuring it is convenient for parents and teachers.

Another example here is bathrooms – at the Maple Street School, bathroom views are controlled so that teachers can supervise but children feel a sense of privacy.

“Understanding the difference in scale and orientation between an adult and a child is central to organising the space,” says Barker. “It is critical to consider visual connections, color, and textures from the height and viewpoint of a small child. This allows spaces to be multivalent – to perform in more than one way.”

She points out that when spaces are scaled appropriately, children will feel fully connected to their environment. What’s more, incorporating ‘real-world’ spaces (like the food truck kitchen) helps them draw links between home, school and community.

“The classrooms are partitioned with pairs of tall maple pocket doors, with oval cutouts at different heights to give children and adults views between spaces. When the pocket doors are opened, the rooms become a single space for school-wide events,” she says.

Let children create

As per many other recent kindergarten designs, the Maple Street School features warm material palettes and a gentle colour scheme. In this regard, it’s a world apart from the slightly garish feel you might associate with child-oriented architecture.

Hibinosekkei, a Japanese firm specialising in educational facilities, is willing to take credit for this shift towards more understated play areas.

“Most kindergartens tend to be like amusement parks,” says the firm’s president, Taku Hibino. “But kindergartens are an educational facility, where children grow up. So using too many colours and animation characters is nonsense.”

He adds that the firm’s design philosophy – radical in its day – has elicited positive reactions globally.

“As the result, the number of too-colourful kindergartens that are like amusement parks has decreased and the number of truly educational ones has increased,” he says.

In the 17 years since it was founded, Hibinosekkei has designed more than 500 children’s facilities, via its dedicated childcare division Youji no Shiro. Two recent examples are a kindergarten with an obstacle course and climbing nets, and another with a wooden playhouse inside to encourage domestic role-play.

The firm believes that, as well as stimulating learning, kindergartens should be designed to boost kids’ activity levels.

“The educational perspective is a bit different in each country. But hoping that children grow up strong and healthy is same in all countries and for all parents,” says Hibino. “We have some projects in progress in China and Japan, which are focused on increasing children’s movements. And we are collaborating with university researchers to evince the relationship between children’s health and architecture.”

He adds that, since children are unable to choose their environment for themselves, architects should avoid overdesigning. Rather, young users ought be able to make the space their own.

“We need to leave room for children to create,” he says. “The important thing is leaving a blank space for children in such an educational field, though architects want to design everything.”

As Barker explains, this balance between flexibility and specificity is a difficult one, and perhaps constitutes one of the key challenges of kindergarten design.

“If designs are too flexible and changeable they do not have enough presence,” she says. “Oftentimes things are not actually changed at the rate that they are designed for and the aspirations of the design remain unfulfilled.”

Architects, then, need to create spaces that prompt creativity at the same time as keeping children stimulated. They need to encourage a sense of adventure at the same time as keeping them safe. And while design trends will continue to evolve, in line with prevailing views of child development, this basic balancing act will remain consistent.

For companies like WeGrow, the goal is even more lofty – to help children “understand their superpowers”. Getting this right, from an architectural perspective, is evidently anything but child’s play.

This article appears in the Summer 2018 edition of LEAF Review

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