March 1, 2010

School of Thought: A Creative German Primary School By Lederer + Ragnarsdóttir + Oei

Children often leave their mark on schools, from initials carved jaggedly into desktops to graffiti scrawled on restroom walls. It’s not often that the architecture actually invites these contributions. However, it does at an addition to the Freien Waldorfschule St. Georgen, a Steiner-Waldorf primary school in the southwestern German town of Freiburg. The three main doors are clad in copper that changes color with the weather. . .and with fingerprints. “The students can rub in their own graphics. Then, after three weeks, they’re gone,” Jórunn Ragnarsdóttir says. Ragnarsdóttir, her husband, Arno Lederer, and his former student Marc Oei beat out five other architecture firms in the competition for this project—a decision influenced by Lederer + Ragnarsdóttir + Oei‘s previous forays into educational design, notably a Steiner school in nearby Villingen-Schwenningen.

Appealing to a child’s imagination is just one pillar of Rudolf Steiner’s educational system, which emphasizes the academic, physical, emotional, and spiritual needs of the “whole child.” The first Steiner-Waldorf school opened in 1919 in Stuttgart for children of workers at the Waldorf-Astoria cigarette factory. Now, more than 1,000 outposts exist in 60 countries. In terms of architecture, most Steiner schools are influenced by the organic form of the Goetheanum in Basel, Switzerland. Steiner, who was also an architect, designed this concrete building as the home base of his spiritual philosophy movement, Anthroposophy. “Keep in mind that the man is a god today,” Lederer says. “And his approach ideally calls for no right angles.”

The 29,000-square-foot white stucco addition to the Freiburg school houses 11 classrooms spread out over three stories. A multipurpose room hosts activities as diverse as handicrafts and cooking. Two studios are dedicated to eurythmy, which Lederer describes as a “mixture of modern ballet and Chinese shadow boxing.” As performance is a large part of the Steiner curriculum, the school’s showpiece is a double-height auditorium. Chairs here as well as in the classrooms were custom-made in plywood to keep costs down.

Because Steiner’s pedagogical philosophy is very specific about children’s need for color, Lederer + Ragnarsdóttir + Oei tempered the envelope’s neutral plywood, oiled oak, concrete, and white paint with bright accents. Classrooms, all slightly different in shape, have walls in sunny yellow or tomato red. “Steiner believed that younger pupils, particularly, need warm colors,” Lederer explains. A balustrade on the second-floor landing is painted that same red, bouncing a rosy glow on the wall opposite. “For the preteen years,” Oei adds, “the colors get cooler.”

The architects’ most prominent use of color involves the auditorium’s windows, square and rectangular apertures scattered asymmetrically across the street facade. Mounted in front of each of them is a slightly larger panel of blue, red, pink, or orange glass, which casts a rainbow of light on the walls inside. “There’s always color, so you don’t really see the gray concrete,” Ragnarsdóttir notes. Only two other colors appear in the auditorium: crimson, used for chair cushions and one of the velour curtains, and royal blue, used for the other curtain. Designed like those in a professional theater, the curtains can be closed or opened several different ways. “Suddenly, Hamlet can appear on stage,” Lederer says, adding that Steiner students are “simply more creative.” He speaks with some authority. All four sons of Lederer and Ragnarsdóttir attended Steiner schools.

 Volker Katthagen; Katja Pütter: Lederer + Ragnarsdóttir + Oei. Büro Für Baurealisierung: Structural Engineer. Ingenieurbüro Bühler: MEP. Holzbau Baumer: Woodwork. Albert Feser: Plasterwork. Moser: Concrete Work. Bodenlegerei Bromma: Flooring Contractor.

Photography by Zooey Braun.

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