Last year, while I was reviewing the brilliant El Guadual Children’s Center in Villa Rica, Colombia, I discovered a theory in nursery design known as the “Reggio Emilia Approach,” a method for preschool design that was founded upon the belief that “the physical environment of an educational building is crucial to development during early childhood, often being referred to as a child’s ‘third teacher.’”
Although it dates back to the 1960s, when it was developed by Italian teacher Loris Malaguzzi, this pedagogic philosophy is not always a consideration for those designing learning spaces for young children. However, a new project by innovative Chinese firm MAD provides ample evidence that the theory is alive and well in contemporary architecture: the Clover Housekindergarten has just broken ground in Okazaki, Japan, having been designed with the naturally inquisitive behavior of children in mind.
The site for the kindergarten is occupied by the client’s existing house, built using construction techniques that were typical of the mass-produced houses rolled out across Japan during the postwar period. Noting that the timber frame of the residential structure was in sound condition, MAD has proposed retaining the existing skeleton of the house, framing the new spaces on a human scale that would offer children a sense of “home away from home.”
The planned building also provides a solution to the programmatic redundancy inherent within conventional business premises, which tend to sit unused and empty after office hours. Not so with the Clover House, which will revert back to life as a private residence in the evenings, housing the owner’s family and staff each night after the children have returned to their respective homes. This synergistic functionality helps increase the efficiency of the site, optimizing usable space on this typically compact Japanese plot.
Having elected to retain the existing timber frame, MAD explored ways to provide shelter for the different educational facilities, seeking a design that would engender a sense of protection for children while also providing flexibility of movement and access throughout the nursery. Their answer was simple, yet radical in its conception: “The new house’s skin wraps the old wood structure like a piece of cloth covering the building’s skeleton, creating a blurry space between the new and the old.”
This “blurry space” sets up a variety of conditions with unusual spatial qualities: the single-story spaces within the frame open up to double-, even triple-height spaces, with the asphalt-shingled roof curving over far above. The outer skin is perforated with rectangular, square, and circular apertures of different sizes, akin to a child’s shape-sorting toy on a macro scale, allowing light to flood in on all sides. These in-between spaces blur the boundary between the inside and outside of the nursery, affording open play spaces that remain fully protected, loosely cocooned by the organic building envelope.
This sculpted skin will also bend the usual rules governing the function of architectural components — case in point, the roof of the original residence. With the new overarching canopy transforming the old roof from an external surface to an internal one, MAD have proposed that this becomes a new plane for play, granting children access via ladders to a series of stepped terraces at the summit of the timber structure. The resulting structure channels the spirit of parkour, in which every available element of built fabric becomes a piece of playground apparatus — the environment is customized for physical exploration, offering a myriad of ways for children to navigate the space.
These unconventional spaces are combined with some equally inventive modes for movement through and out of the kindergarten — a portion of the external envelope is cut away to form an arched entrance facing the street while a slide emerges from the building at the rear, offering a speedy and markedly more fun way for children to access the outdoor play space.
Perhaps the most vivid application of the Reggio Emilia Approach, though, will ultimately be found upon the material covering the organic form of the kindergarten. The asphalt shingle tiles coating the exterior will be cut to form paper-like pieces upon which the children will be encouraged to draw pictures that strengthen their emotional connection and memories of their nursery. Over time, the architecture itself will become a physical manifestation of its young inhabitants’ vibrant imaginations.
MAD describes the Clover House as both “a mystical cave” and a “popup fort,” felicitous metaphors for an architectural realization of the kinds of spaces that children might imagine. On its completion in December 2015, Clover House will provide both continual stimulation and a sense of safety thanks to its small-scale, domestic environment, setting a new, playful precedent for preschool architecture.
The Angry Architect