More than an Architect

More than a space of learning

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The first project for Crossboundaries in the educational sector was “Family Box” in Beijing in 2008. Family Box was a learning space, something between an indoor playground and a kindergarten for children with its main concept being learning through play, which back then was something very new for Chinese parents.

More projects for young children and toddlers followed over the years, and we witnessed a real boom around us in the development of learning spaces. Subsequently, Crossboundaries got involved in simple classroom upgrades, early childhood learning facilities, pop-up school installations, primary and high school buildings and campuses, the latter also included the design of their outdoor spaces and landscaping. These projects were located all over China, in first-tier cities, like Beijing, Shanghai or Shenzhen, but also in less prominent places, in provinces like Fujian and Zhejiang, where we realized projects in the countryside.

While designing more and more educational spaces in different settings, we naturally became interested in the “learning process” itself and started to create and conduct workshops for children. We utilized our own studio to teach and to add a unique set of skills to the field of education, including design thinking, creative thinking and analytical thinking. Creating a dialogue with the children and their parents became our way of engaging in this participatory experiment which we understand as a part of “learning.”

These activities helped us tremendously to better understand the needs of future learning spaces so that we are now able to apply this knowledge directly into our designs.

A learning space can be anywhere.
The public park as a “classroom” or learning happens everywhere, Songzhuang Micro Community Park, Beijing, China, 2021, Crossboundaries. Photo © Bai Yu

Globally, there is a lot of change happening in the educational sector and these new teaching and learning concepts should ideally be reflected in the spatial design. Since places of education have a great and very direct influence on individuals and their social behavior, we embrace the assumption of “we shape the space, and the space shapes us.”

In China, we are exposed to some specific limitations when it comes to the planning process. China is the country with the highest population worldwide and extreme differences in development standards in urban and rural areas. It is also a very centralized state.

When planning public schools, we are constantly faced with the demand of providing standardized learning environments and classrooms with a layout for up to 50 children. In the eyes of many teachers and educators, these still work well in providing a good generic education. But in fact, these classrooms where all the children focus on the same activity with one teacher at the front, “act” against the natural initiative of children. And facing a future with many uncertainties, a first important step is to shift from teacher-centered to learner-centered learning, encouraging students to explore and seek knowledge by themselves and foster their creativity.

As a consequence, learning should not happen only in the classroom but everywhere, and if we as planners cannot change the boundary of the classroom quite yet, or only in certain projects, we need to focus on other areas. In a school these are the public areas, the connecting and circulation spaces like corridors and staircases, where children meet and hang out. And there is the outdoors and the connection between the inside and outside we can focus on, to transform the campus into a learning landscape. These mentioned areas improved immensely over the last years already.

A learning space in China.
Learning outside the classroom, Beisha Kindergarten, Jiangsu, China, 2018, Crossboundaries. Photo © Wu Qingshan

The Beisha kindergarten, a project in rural Jiangsu, still has classrooms, but it emphasizes the connections between the spaces and the integration of inside and outside. In creating an outdoor elevated pathway, organized around a multifunctional open space in the center of a group of buildings, it naturally invites children to explore and observe. From here they can oversee their “territory,” climb up and down staircases, connect with their peers and engage in play, while at the same time feeling safe. Since the pathway is elevated, the children experience a different perspective and are close to the natural environment with treetops within a hand’s reach. The rural setting in this example also supports the outdoor activities.

In the public park design for Songzhuang we in fact brought the “room” in as an abstract element, to frame gathering spaces thematically within an urban setting.

We designed this park in response to the diverse and vibrant community of the neighborhood, offering “urban rooms” with different features, like seating, sports activities and so forth, connected by a yellow path that provides the opportunity for people to interact, fostering communal behavior like sharing, caring for each other and learning from each other.

A learning space in Beijing.
Songzhuang Micro Community Park, Beijing, China, 2021, Crossboundaries. Photo © Bai Yu

In the center, we integrated a “room,” which is all about children’s play: a bright yellow environment, open to the sky, and interrupted by cutouts of different sizes for peek-a-boo and hide-and-seek. A series of connecting speaking tubes runs across the walls where children sing and shout into, while their parents and grandparents watch from a distance. It is a place of both interaction and learning, an environment which provides a great level of knowledge transfer as children of different ages naturally play together.

Lifelong learning, no matter if you are young or old, and learning everywhere you are, no matter if it is in a kindergarten or public park can help us to be prepared for the complex times still ahead of us. Keep learning!

Main Image: Beisha Kindergarten, Jiangsu, China, 2018, Crossboundaries. Photo © Wu Qingshan

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