The shape of our schools matters more than we might realize. When we examine the evolution of pedagogical approaches over the last century, we can see how they mirror changes in society. Centralized, authoritarian models have gradually given way to more democratic practices; the teacher is no longer the master, but a mediator and guide.
This shift calls for us to rethink the spatial configurations of schools that were designed around halls leading from one classroom to another.
“Tomorrow’s schools will have to incorporate a wider range of differentiated spaces,” explains Natacha Jean, director general of Lab-École.
A non-profit organization, Lab-École (School Lab) was created in 2017 by three founding members: Pierre Thibault, Pierre Lavoie, and Ricardo Larrivée. Lab-École aims to bring together experts from various disciplines to design the schools of tomorrow and to foster a collective rethinking of school design.
Since 2018 the organization has been supporting six school service centres — Québec’s alternative to school boards — in building or expanding elementary schools across the province. They set up an architectural competition, Imaginons l’école de demain ensemble (Imagining Tomorrow’s Schools Together), for which a total of 135 proposals were submitted by 160 firms. In the first phase of the competition, architects chose the project or projects for which they wanted to submit an anonymous proposal. Lab-École is now in the design and construction stage for six new buildings, which should be opening their doors by the end of 2021. Here is a closer look at one of the four finalists for the Saguenay site: Microclimat’s École de la Côte.
“The projects in Rimouski and Saguenay spoke to us immediately, as members of our core team and our collaborators have strong ties to those places,” explains Guillaume Marcoux, architect at Microclimat.
“The Saguenay project is located on a particularly inspiring site; its coasts and valleys offer a spectacular view of the mountain landscapes of the Parc national des Monts-Valin.”
For research, the Lab-École team travelled to Copenhagen, where they met with JJW Architects. The firm is redefining contemporary Danish schools by merging professional learning and social change. Katja Viltoft, JJW architect and partner, sums it up as follows: “We can only build modern, visionary schools if we are attuned to the ideological objectives and demands of the society of tomorrow. A school is a theatre of professional development and of the well-being of children and teens, as well as an important pillar of society and the surrounding neighbourhood.”
“The perfect school exists only for a moment. Our world is constantly changing. Schools, as physical and visionary institutions, must keep up with social change and constantly seek to improve.”
We have to think of schools as places that not only reflect social change but also drive it: as sites that help solve entrenched issues like lack of social mobility, struggles with social integration, and sedentary lifestyles. They are tools that we must constantly put to use, adjust, and improve. The most difficult and least tangible aspect of the architectural process is the cultural change it must foster: new places of learning must have new methods of teaching and learning at their heart. Without these new ideas, schools cannot fulfill their purpose.
École de la Côte embodies a community architecture, fitting into the landscape that surrounds it, including both the neighbourhood of Le Bassin and the greater Saguenay–Lac-Saint-Jean region.
The school’s playful relationship with the hilly area gives it an unconstrained atmosphere and creates a less rigid, more inviting space. Surrounded by a park, it also connects leisure and learning for its students and the larger community.
“It was important to us to tie our proposal to the physical and socio-demographic context of the site, beyond the Lab-École program and objectives,” explains Marcoux.
The project includes two pavilions with distinct but complementary functions. Partially burrowed into the hill, the classroom pavilion offers views of the landscape. It’s divided into three learning zones for different grades. Each learning zone has its own small courtyard, providing spaces that are at once outdoors and intimate.
“In the school, we’ve alternated spaces that foster encounters and activity with those that inspire calm and reflection,” says Marcoux. The collaborative space for each group of grades is divided into three large areas: an area for group work, a central cafeteria, and a reading room. Next is the community pavilion, which bridges the neighbourhood and the park and serves as the school’s main entrance. When you enter, your gaze is immediately drawn to the gymnasium, bleachers, playground, surrounding woodland, and the nearby mountain.
École de la Côte incorporates the history of the local landscape and people. A true community space, it links the park, neighbourhood, and the school in the common goal of knowledge transmission.