A Hundred Worlds in a Garden Shed

On creating environments that elicit the excitement of learning

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Beyond being healthy, bright and airy, a learning environment for young children must feel secure and homelike. Yet it should also be expansive, adventurous and otherworldly. It must draw out a sense of belonging and, simultaneously, the vital need for play and curiosity.

What kind of building can trigger this ambivalent human condition that seeks both emotional comfort and enchantment? I have no better example than suggesting that we imagine ourselves inside the charmed and magical space of our timber shed in the back garden. This unassuming small workshop (or storeroom of sorts) is clearly “other” than our home; ordinary but potentially unsettling and dreamlike.

During the design of the new Science Lab for the Eleanor Palmer Primary School, we thought a lot about the architectural character of the garden shed and the associations it shares with the magnificent wonder-rooms of the 16th and 17th century. What if the design of a contemporary primary school classroom for the teaching of science and technology emerges from the combination of these two architectural typologies?

Wonder-full typologies

The garden shed is a place to hide, carry out hobbies, dream, do, and make. In the smell of wood and particles of dust, we can lose ourselves among random things, forgotten tools and hidden secrets. As an apothḗkē, the shed is a repository of physical items but also an impregnator of ideas. Used as a workshop, it can allow endless handling, sorting out, fabrication and invention. Its intimate and personalised nature sharply contrasts with the generic and unremarkable character of most classrooms today.

The wonder-room is a room filled with collections of natural objects that emerged in the 16th century, otherwise known as a “cabinet of curiosities.” Ole Worm’s Museum Wormianum of 1655 is a fine example: the architecture of the room is simple while the walls and even the ceiling are covered in precious oddities and artefacts. This space resembles a premodern museum and perhaps also alludes to the contemporary personalised taxonomies that we tend to create in the digital worlds of our screens.

Ole Worm’s cabinet of curiosities, from Museum Wormianum, 1655. Image Wikimedia Commons

A garden shed built out of timber tends to make the architecture entirely legible. Intuitively unpacking the building’s logical geometry, its economical construction, and its structural, material and environmental properties, is a lesson in itself. The wonder-room, on the other hand, is a total theater of visual learning. Objects and pictures tell stories, create knowledge and ask questions about the world we experience; a pedagogic practice in its own right.

Building wonder into education

In most primary schools in the UK, the STEM curriculum (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) is taught in sometimes slightly adapted yet conventional classrooms. The Eleanor Palmer Science Lab is not an adapted or extended classroom but a stand-alone building that aims to offer a different pedagogic experience. Guided by ideas that we have been developing since 2012, it explores the possibilities of the raw and “scaffold” logic of the timber school building.

Central to this work is our attempt to develop an enchanting vocabulary of architectural built form with inherent pedagogical and sociable qualities. A thoughtfully designed contemporary timber wonder-room integrates multiple layers of practical and aesthetic knowledge and can host fully sensed events where sound, smell, materiality, light and air as well as inhabitation are equal partners.

Upon visiting the Eleanor Palmer Science Lab after it was built, we have witnessed the engaging workshops and residencies taking place and all things that it accommodates: plants slowly grow in glass jars on the shelves in front of the windows on the east, shells and skulls brought in by parents feature in cabinets on the west, optical instruments and gadgets multiply on the worktops and vibrant papier-mâché constructions of chemical models are hung from the ceiling while energy-generating bikes play music when used by the children in the science garden. This is a world of wonder.

Locals talk about the huge, glow-in-the-dark astronaut helmet that now occupies the building’s street window, reminding us all what prompted the creation of this building in the first place: an inspiring and extraordinary live conversation between the young pupils of this school and astronaut Kjell Lindgren while he was on the International Space Station on November 4, 2015.

Architecture as a living organism

Architecture has an immense pedagogic and representational capacity. Following the ideas of the early childhood educator Loris Malaguzzi, we believe that the school environment is indeed a “third teacher” and, also, a “living organism.” The mixed typology of the garden room and the wonder-room tries to evoke Malaguzzi’s description of “a feeling of belonging in a world that is alive, welcoming and authentic” by placing the child’s imagination at its centre:

The child is made of one hundred. The child has a hundred languages, a hundred hands, a hundred thoughts, a hundred ways of thinking, of playing, of speaking. A hundred, always a hundred, ways of listening, of marvelling, of loving, a hundred joys for singing and understanding, a hundred worlds to discover, a hundred worlds to invent, a hundred worlds to dream.”

Loris Malaguzzi,1920-1994

Main image: Eleanor Palmer Science Lab, interior view, by AY Architects. Photo © Yeoryia Manolopoulou

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