Schools as powerhouses

Schools should be places that generate the power to learn and live through the kind of teaching offered, as described by Hartwig von Hentig in his fine book „Schule neu denken“ (Rethinking School), or through the design of the building itself. They are places with a very special charisma, making a positive impact on enjoying learning and life itself, as Rainer Winkel demands. (Lit. 1)


Everyone knows that there are places in buildings and town that could be especially captivating, impressive or stimulating. The architecture theorist Christopher Alexander has researched these phenomena and his books on the subject are particularly worth reading for educationalists as well as architects. (Lit. 2)


There is food for thought in the fact that these places are not usually to be found among the products of so-called modern architecture, and we will try to explain why this should be so below. Looking at any architecture magazine on the subject of building schools will horrify any real educationalist.


A Swedish proverb says that the children are the first teacher, the teachers the second and the school the third, in other words the school is the very place that should be designed as a powerhouse. The much chided children are not the problem by nature. They are born discoverers and inventors, and are, as Pablo Picasso said, all artists, but it is just so very difficult to remain a child as an adult. Things look rather different when we come to the teachers, when von Hentig points out that it is not the children but the teachers that are the problem at school, and they are at their most dire in the field of school buildings. Sometimes I sense complete commitment to the spirit of Prussian educational establishments, or when I see the more recent Swiss schools published all over the world in architecture magazines I can’t help feeling that this must be the Calvinists‘ revenge on the rest of the world.


Heinrich Zille, writing about the Berlin tenement blocks in the early 1870s said that you could kill a person with a home just as you could with an axe, putting into words for these buildings what Alexander Mitscherlich branded the inhospitality of our cities in a wider context a century later. Human ethologists, like Konrad Lorenz’s pupils Bernd Lötsch, Herrmann Schievenhöfel and Eibl-Eiblsfeld have discovered that people need houses for their psychological and social, as well as their physical well-being. Being naked apes, they cannot survive in our hostile environment without clothes and a house, so have had to learn to house themselves. They have so internalized this that even as small children they instinctively start to create a protective envelope for themselves. Caves and nests are the symbols of these places of protection and refuge that accompany us throughout our lives.


We want to say that people need houses, and at the same time are capable of building houses. Housing themselves is one of their primal needs and primal abilities, with the emphasis on „themselves“. This expresses the fact that people’s own participation, their involvement in the building process is crucially important for the later acceptance of the house and identification with its four walls. We have experienced this when building a lot of family homes, and especially in the case of schools and other buildings for young people, with the subsequent users taking part in the planning and building process. First of all, we found out that physical involvement in building is not just a technical, but a social process. For millennia, building was a process for a social community, was neighbourhood help and an initiation ritual, was tied into a society and its traditional practices. We have built eight buildings for young people, and these came into being largely through self-help, meaning, as Peter Blundell Jones describes so vividly and expertly in his book about our work „Building as a Social Process”, that the buildings are treated lovingly and looked after well, and have remained largely free of any signs of vandalism. (Lit. 3) ( available spring 2007 )


We thought at first that the reason for this was that the young people were directly involved in the building process, and in the fact that these builders felt protective towards their own product. But this theory became less and less credible from year to year, as the buildings became older, still remained in intact and the young builders had disappeared to the four corners of the earth. But the young users still insist that they built their accommodation, even though they were not even born at the time. So it seems that it is not the builders who protect their building, but that it is the building itself, through its particular charisma, proclaims the unique way in which it was made, the story of how it came into being and the immense effort invested in it. It seems as though the building is telling the story of the love and devotion it was made with, „architecture parlante“, eloquent architecture in the best sense has been created.


It is clear even now that buildings that are loved have an identity and individuality of their own, which raises them out of anonymous uniformity. This becomes entirely comprehensible when we compare it with clothes, in both cases it is only individual quality that leads to real identification and affection. Clothes and houses have to meet emotional and social needs, as well as performing their function. If houses are not to be merely protective huts, but also create a space in which individuals and the group can live, they have to perform a range of complex tasks or, as Herrmann Schievenhöfel discovered, a house cannot be a purely technical and cognitive construct, but must meet a wide range of emotional and social needs as well. After the buildings for young people realized on a self-help basis in the period from 1983-1992, our projects became increasingly complex and large, which meant that realization by the individuals involved inevitably decreased, but participation in the planning process remained, especially in the case of schools. Even when planning the tree-house (a building for two year 8 classes), which was actually conceived as a self-help project for the Odenwaldschule near Heppenheim, it became clear that the way we had worked with young people and students on buildings for young people was directly transferable to schools. This approach is described in detail step by step in our book „Kinder bauen ihre Schule, Evangelische Gesamtschule Gelsenkirchen“. (Lit. 4)


The first thing that has to happen is that questions about what is most important have to be answered, for example for a classroom, which is by no means simple, as it involves each individual pupil or teacher. After this a free clay model of each person is made as a „doll“ on a scale of 1:10, and this serves as a reference object for further playful development of the design, largely in a large-scale model with the aid of wooden laths and cardboard.


After the tree-house had been built by builders, with scarcely any involvement by the pupils, they wrote a long article for the Heppenheim local paper in which they proudly reported that they had built the entire building themselves. Amazingly this is something that we experienced over and over again later, and we now realize that being involved in planning, taking people’s requests seriously and discussing the various possible solutions thoroughly is an extremely laborious and time-consuming process, but always a productive and successful one. It seems to be more important than self-help at the building stage and leads to the same feeling of a self-determined, tailor-made design solution, and also to a high level of identification with the building. It seems precisely as though the particular ambience, the uniqueness of the building or even something like the aura of the building is captured in what is actually a dead object through the personal involvement and devotion of a lot of people, ideally the later users, so that the building is able to proclaim: „I am a real individual, a living organism and I am all this especially for you, who recognize me. I am an essential part of your entire personality!“ We thought this was somewhat esoteric when we experienced it for the first time, until we found out more from human ethologists, psychologists, sociologists and neurologists about people, their genetic development, their psychological and social needs and their interaction with and dependence on dead and living nature.


People are inclined to personalize the things that surround them, and their language reveals this: „That poor old house, that fragile chair, that beloved vase or understanding, experiencing, appreciating and contriving.“ Concepts or images are constantly used that make sensual imagination possible. In his book „Die Hand“ (The Hand“), Robert T. Wilson explains the connection between grasping with the hand and grasping with the mind very vividly. He also shows that in terms of developmental history, the hand was there before the brain. It was precisely because of the extraordinary dexterity of early man, who made his hands into astonishingly sophisticated „tools“ because he was able to oppose his thumb and index finger, and could thus do such a variety of things that it became essential to develop communication and hence a larger brain. Making things and developing complex manual skills is still one of the essential building blocks of good education. Hand, heart and mind should be developed to an equal extent at the same time. In this context, Konrad Lorenz pointed out how people today are much more one-sidedly dependent on the sense of sight, which impoverishes the other senses and tends to encourage the emergence of „emotional cripples“. (Lit. 5)


We all are all familiar with things that are satisfying to the hands, like toys, chair backs, pipes or women’s breasts. Sensual experience through touch and taste creates a sense of well-being that brings calm and relaxation not just to children, but particularly also to handicapped people, and those with psychological disorders and dementia sufferers. The sense of smell is certainly experienced in early childhood, the sense of hearing is brought into play in our mothers‘ wombs, and the sense of sight, which seems to dominate everything today, is the last to be trained. It is astonishing that babies can grasp things and the world around them at such a complex level, as Hugo Kükelhaus and also Friedrich Pohlmann have so vividly demonstrated.


Children grasp (again this word with two meanings) and comprehend the world in their immediate vicinity with all their sensual organs, the mouth, the skin, the nose, the ear and the eye, and this is crucially important for our observations of what could make schools into powerhouses: ONLY ONE ENVIRONMENT, ONE THAT STIMULATES ALL THE SENSES, KEEPS THEM AWAKE AND FLATTERS, IS FIT FOR HUMAN BEINGS. Little children are already familiar with the nature of many subjects and objects, they can identify them by taste, smell, sound, structure and not just by their appearance, and can remember positive and negative experiences. They have learned to distinguish between hot and cold, loud and quiet, hard and soft, sweet and sour, smooth and rough, sharp and blunt and so an ad infinitum, they have learned to distinguish between things that please them and things that hurt, between good and bad things, as it were. In a radio essay that fascinates me, Friedrich Pohlmann explained these developmental stages, pointing out that when children (people) see a wineglass, they do not simply know that it is transparent and fragile, but also that it is cool, what it tastes like, the sound it makes and its odourlessness. This means that one sense, the sense of sight, for example, is able simultaneously to identify what the other sense will experience and thus provides a holistic picture of an object or a blossom, a part of the body.


When listening to this programme I was spontaneously reminded of the parallels with the way we perceive architecture. Buildings and towns are also taken in by all our senses (probably more than the five mentioned, just think of Rudolf Steiner’s sense of balance and beauty!). In order to design sensuous spaces, or better, spaces that bring pleasure to the senses, they have to be thought into being, in other words invented using all the senses, not just with the eye and for the eye. It does not help much for an architecture periodical to demand the approval of insiders, the guardians of modern architecture and their specialist colleagues with carefully composed photographs of spick and span buildings without any people and nowadays without any furniture in them , and in the worst cases to establish a precedent by setting a trend and serving as models for the next generation of architecture students if they fail to meet people’s actual wishes and needs.


After what has been said, it is clear that people are able to feel spontaneously positively or negatively affected, touched or accepted by objects, materials, structure etc. It is not necessary for a schoolgirl to touch a bare concrete wall to realize that she doesn’t like it, that her experience tells her: cold, rough, dusty and thus not pleasing to the hands, not a homely place, and then to want to do nothing but get away. Or as a school pupil you don’t have to walk down that straight corridor that is far too long to know that it is boring, predictable, not an adventure but there is no escaping it either, or better just don’t set off down it. And a teacher doesn’t have to teach in a traditional boxy classroom to know that it´s like being in a barracks, nothing like home, no help to the teaching and certainly not a living space. Most of our senses respond negatively, and not with sympathy, no wonder that spaces like that are poor teachers. The architectural psychologist Rotraut Walden researches and describes these phenomena. (Lit. 6)


So what’s to be done, or how can progressive education and humane architecture be brought together, how do they find their way to the pupil, so that this situation arises:


This book presents some examples of our practice’s work.


The Freie Waldorfschule in Cologne was our first complete Rudolf Steiner school, built as a single-form entry school with thirteen classes, specialist rooms, workshops, hall, caretaker’s accommodation and sports hall. The planning phase took two years, and the building another eighteen months. The entire four-year process involved intensive contributions from all 150 pupils, about 50 parents and 50 teachers, in workshops usually lasting for two days. The intensive joint working meeting decided on the key basic features of the unique aura of this school. The wish expressed at the first meeting for the most beautiful Steiner school in the world (out of over 500?) set the bar very high: a unique, individual school had to come into being, tailor-made for Cologne, and all of a piece, despite the unduly low budget, it was to have a hall with a professional stage from the outset. Brainstorming in the 10th class produced the idea of light as a surprising building material, sunlight, what a fascinating thought, what an appropriate building material for people. Pupils in the 6th class carved a hand and jointly devised the idea of the school as a „school of open embrace“ an idea that was sharpened up at a plenary workshop session and seen as applying to the entire school community internally, but also as a way of looking outwards to the Cologne district of Chorweiler, with the idea of integrating this social flashpoint with an population of which 80% were foreigners.


The centre forms a light-flooded oasis, in which as in the case of a rose the supporting stem, in the form of a gigantic column with 10-., 20-, 60-fold branches spanning the whole building, making the loadbearing structure comprehensible to everyone. This hides the pentagonal arrangement of the rose behind the individual shapes of the petals. The classrooms are arranged around the oasis on three floors and take the same liberty according to year, and so the school hit upon its central motto as the „Rose of Chorweiler“, and this accompanied the whole process to a massive extent, so that the pupils could say: „Our school is going to be a rose, yes, yes, the classrooms are the petals“. Christian Forster describes the school in greater detail on page XX. It is important in our context to acknowledge the close dovetailing with the social process of the school’s emergence, and thus the associated enrichment by emotional content, most of which can be narrated in stories. Peter Blundell Jones has described this phenomenon as a particular existential feature of our practice’s approach. Even for the early buildings for young people, this was an important trick for conveying to the young people that their school was special and unique. I said at the time: „If a design is any good you have to be able to explain it to your grandma on the phone without any plans.“ Stories create images in the listeners‘ heads; that is the fascination of Arabian storytellers. (Lit. 3)


The Janusz Korzcak School in Diesendorf, Überlingen, is a special school to help children who run away from school to go back to normal schooling. As such pupils hate school so much that they are constantly breaking out of it, it was important not to build a school, but somewhere where they were at home. The basis for the planning was found with the children in a two-day brainstorming session followed by model-building: not a school building but a village with houses, not a classroom but a class house with its own entrance, WC, lobby with cloakroom, comfortable teaching space with personal lockers, with the specialist rooms downstairs and the class homes above with a gallery under the pitched roof are loosely arranged around a central hall that forms the market-place in the little village. It is possible to meet quite casually here, or pathways cross here, and the communal activities and parties take place here. The new ensemble went down extremely well from the outset, and despite the fact that the pupils tend to violence its has remained remarkably free of any traces of vandalism. It is described in detail in Peter Blundell Jones’s book „Building as a Social Process“. (Lit. 3)


The Protestant comprehensive school in Gelsenkirchen occupied our practice intensively for eleven years, from the competition in 1993 to the final moment of completion. It represents the sum of all our previous experience in building schools that are appropriate for people: schools are places in which people live, not mere institutions for learning or teaching. Hugo Kükelhaus demonstrated this very convincingly as early as 1900 as a response to the short fashion for schools without windows, in his book „Von der Tierfabrik zur Lernanstalt“. („From Animal Factory to Learning Institution“) (Lit. 7). The Gelsenkirchen school is multicultural and multiconfessional, and has an ecological focus. It is a five-class entry school with three classes at secondary stage 2, taking pupils from year 5 to A-Level. Even though it is run by the Westfahlen Protestant Church it takes about 30% Catholic and about 30% Muslim pupils, thus meeting the demand for integration at a very high level. It sees itself as a community school and provides valuable social aid for the Bismarck district, which suffers from over 30% unemployment, mostly involving people of Turkish origin, a situation caused by the total decline of the mining industry. The school’s ecological stance is both part of the teaching and particularly part of the architecture, especially the building materials and the solar energy concept


The school is conceived as a small town in which the internal market-place and street are surrounded by this large school’s general rooms. These individual function units were planned and answered for by eleven architects from our practice, each taking responsibility for his or her own section The intention was definitely not to create a school that was all of a piece as a design, but to convey complex visual impressions, like a town that has developed naturally. This can be seen from the names: not refectory but inn, not offices but town hall, not assembly hall but theatre and library, chapel, laboratory, studio, workshop building. This extraordinarily complex school and the unusual way in which it came into being is beyond the scope of this lecture. I therefore refer you to the book „Kinder bauen ihre Schule“ („Children Make Their School“), in which all those involved have their say in detailed contributions in 180 pages with 650 illustrations in colour, showing how the strategy for building a school like this was developed comprehensibly and in a way that can be imitated, despite a tight budget and a lot of scepticism.


There are several things that are particularly important for our theme: on the one hand, variety, individuality, acceptance, identification, in brief well-being in a school complex have already been achieved with the central arrangement that has already been described, but on the other hand the key to the whole ensemble lies in the class houses, which give many visitors the strong impression that they are not in a school at all. Many people have said that from the outside it looks more like a Danish holiday village, and from the inside like somewhere in Tuscany.


On the matter of the ecological approach to the school required by the competition, we found that ecological understanding and behaviour by the pupils could not be achieved through a few wet biotopes as „learning by doing“, in other word effectively without being noticed and on the side, and anyway the school was to have almost 1300 pupils in its final form. On the contrary, our response was to treat each class with its 30 pupils and a male and a female teacher as the smallest unit, and to allot give it a building of its own, with its own entrance, lobby, cloakroom, toilers, classroom, gallery and private garden. And, and this was the most important factor in terms of identification, to let them plan it themselves. So we used the class community to work with us as architects to find (or invent) devise (or dream up) class units that really were original and individual! The absolutely amazing diversity of the different solutions despite the basic scheme of 9 x 24 m is the result of this communal process. Anyone who tries to design a building with amateurs and above all with children must be able to listen and to make dreams come true. The incredible commitment, indeed the passion with which the children set about this task of developing their own house confirms the ideas about the participation process put forward above.


The pictures that follow may be able to say more about this phenomenon than texts, as the children’s shining eyes and both their devotion and price in the experience of success, and thus the advantages familiar to all educationalists of teaching relating to a real project.


The similar approach to the Freie Waldorfschule in Kirchheim/ Teck, the Freie Waldorfschule in Frankfurt, the Voorzieningen Cluster in Enschede/Holland and many more projects can be looked at on our homepage


Peter Hübner, 18th November 2006




Lit. 1) Rainer Winkel
Theorie und Praxis der Schule
Oder: Schulreform konkret im Haus des Lebens und Lernens
Schneider Verlag, Hohengehren 1997
ISBN 3-87116-852-1


Lit. 2) Christopher Alexander
Eine Mustersprache ( A Pattern Language)
ISBN 3-85409-179-6


Lit. 3) Werkmonografie:
Peter Blundell Jones,
Peter Hübner, Building as a social process,
Bauen als ein sozialer Prozess,
Edition Axel Menges 2006 I
ISBN 3-932556-02-9


Lit. 4) Peter Hübner
Kinder bauen ihre Schule
Children make their school
Evangelische Gesamtschule Gelsenkirchen
Edition Axel Menges Stuttgart/ London 2005
ISBN 3-932565-52-5


Lit. 5) Frank R. Wilson
Die Hand – Geniestreich der Evolution
Ihr Einfluss auf Gehirn, Sprache und Kultur des Menschen
Klett – Cotta, Stuttgart 2000


Lit. 6) Rotraut Walden
Schulen der Zukunft
Gestaltungsvorschläge der Architekturpsychologie
Asanger Verlag, Heidelberg, Krönig 2002
ISBN 3-89334-392-X


Lit 7) Hugo Kükelhaus
Von der Tierfabrik zur Lernanstalt
Gaia Verlag Cologne


Lit 8)

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