It’s not us who will change the future of society, but children, who will be the gardeners of the future Eden, with the initial power of penetrating through the material of outer shell of the adult world. In order to break through the standardization and tutelage for students in the context of large scale and quick construction, we’re trying to establish a oasis for them at the edge of city and nature through the means of architecture.
Under a highly governed, efficiently calibrated and safely implemented pedagogical system of China, the social and creative aspects in education are rising in their importance. Yet these emergent ideas in recent educational trends are difficult to be exemplified in architectural terms. More often, the land use plan, zoning regulations and programmatic uses are redirecting back to a highly efficient way of designing. For example, a highly distinct segregation of different functions and inflexible configuration which discourages inventive uses are homogenising the spatial arrangement and creating monotony in circulation and flow. This standardised space does not make any room to instigate an inspiring environment for junior grade students to develop their imaginative thinking. In our design for the Suzhou experimental primary school, we have tailored a response to the cope with the distinct site condition and the requirement of the project brief. Ironically, the constraints that we have do not drive us to a conventional standardised design, but instead allow us to develop spaces that profoundly inspire the children throughout times. We have a strong conviction that the future lies in the hand of our younger generations but not us. The power of youth is immensely robust that no physical substance on planet earth could constrain or bound it. For us as architect, we utilise these momenta from the younger generation to resist the status quo and adapt the reality.
对抗与适应 | Confront and adopt
The Suzhou technology and science town share similar characteristics like other new intensely developing towns. The city planning adopts a highly efficient model where the land is subdivided into a grid of various natures with similar urban scales. Our proposal here takes advantage of the existing constraints and leverages the maximum value from the natural surroundings – Confronting both the tight city grid and the grand nature nearby, one side of the site is edged by the lush nature such as canals, wetlands and mountains. The opposite edge of the site is facing a highly artificial environment filled with high density apartment towers. To us, the site demonstrates a uniquely ‘soft’ interface with nature that remains intact. The serenity that the site exhibits remind us the connection to the childhood memory of what a primary school should be. The marriage of the specificity of the site and our past memory offers a unique relationship between space and time. The culmination of the given condition and our perception negates the notorious mentality of development in China in which repetitive efficiency, homogenous layout and code compliant design take charge of the project. Towards the existing monotonous way of operating in the industry, we are rebellious to the norm and trying to subvert the condition through our design.
▼城市与自然的关系，relationship between city and natural environment
Under a tight site condition with complex surrounding conditions and requirement for a high density (FAR: 1.5), we seek to mediate between these seemingly conflicting situations and strike a balance that works with the existing site. We grasp the confrontational quality between the city and nature while reconciling the resistance towards current exam-oriented pedagogy. These paradoxical conditions create opportunities for the architecture within the site to adapt and assimilate. The priority, for us, is to negotiate with all the conflicting conditions, while bringing varieties to the spatial scenario and seeking an internal logic of adaptation. Through a comprehensive and integrative approach, our design demonstrates a fulfillment of the social responsibilities and escalation of educational value to the primary school.
▼校园与城市，the school campus in its urban context
苏州是拥有数千年建城史、承载中国文明传承的古老城市，是中国首批24座国家历史文化名城之一。在农耕文明时代，这里就曾出现过54 位文状元，6 位武状元，居全国出状元地区之首。近代工业时期，苏州籍的两院院士数量也居全国之最。生活在快速发展的城市中，我们已然对城市、历史的认知产生了断层。如何使苏州这一座城的历史、山水、人文能在位于苏州西部经济高速发展的科技城中体现，如何使这所学校的孩子在受教育的同时对历史以及时代的认知尽可能完善，是我们在探讨设计之余当仁不让的职业素养与社会责任。
With thousands of years of rich history, the old Suzhou Town is one of the 24 renowned historical cities whiles being a condenser for traditional Chinese civilisations. In the agrarian era, Suzhou is the number one famous birthplace for many elites and scholars. During the industrial Age, the number of influential academicians who came from Suzhou far exceeded anywhere else. Living in contemporary times, our generation gradually loses a recognition towards the history of our city and culture. Our mission here far exceeds our usual professional responsibilities and ethics. We pay effort to bridge the connection between the history, nature and culture with the developing western high-tech zone in Suzhou. Taking the opportunity of designing a school, we also aspire to re-connect the education of the younger generation with the historical context and the legacy of the contemporary era.
▼南侧入口视角，view to the entrance facade
延续与演进 | Continuity and Evolution
The traditional academy is not only a place for knowledge, but also as a physical presence which witnesses our evolution in history and transmission of culture. The earliest form of academy as a non-governmental format was originated from Tang Dynasty. While the privileged and the scholar initiated the fund-raising for constructing small schools in the serene hillside. Starting from the He Jing Academy of Song Dynasty, the Wen Zheng Academy of Yuan Dynasty, to the Bi Shan Academy of Ming Dynasty, Suzhou is the city where the density and quantity of educational facilities have been dominating the nation.
The design of Suzhou Experimental Primary School reinterprets an integration of traditional culture of Suzhou academies and contemporary ideals in education. While the contemporary education advocates the upbringing of all-rounded students with a commitment to introduce sufficient pedagogical knowledge, it also aims at simulating a miniature of society for nourishing the younger generations. We suggested a proactive yet harmonious vertical academy to reinvent the traditional typology of education architecture.
While having both a macroscopic and microscopic frame of references, the ‘vertical academy’ not only intends to cope with the user’s experience in terms of program, form and ambience, but also establishing a harmonious relationship with the city fabric. Grouping and categorizing various functions of the school, we form 3 rather distinct courtyards by clustering standardised classroom units. These standardised units require a maximisation of efficiency in layout with sufficient separation between them. Within an autonomy of grid system, every classroom fulfilling the basic educational purposes is located on the western edge of the site with an interface juxtaposing the city. The introvert and ordered nature of this configuration defines an idiosyncratic character facing towards the city’s urban fabric. These courtyards form an urban oasis within the neighbouring clusters of high-rises in the new town. Also the offices for teaching staff, administration, auditorium, library, classrooms for elective courses, outdoor playground and canteen all have different area, form and massing requirements. A terracing form creates setbacks and creates groupings of multiple functions, which is arranged along the eastern edge nearby nature. The terraces form 4 groups from south to north and face the eastern mountains acting as an architectural response.
▼空间轴测：教学空间被组合成三个相对独立的院落，axon: 3 individual courtyards are formed by clustering standardized classroom units
The outdoor playground is situated on the east of the site establishing an interesting dialogue with the setbacks of the architecture. The spatial drama of a non-uniform and organic architectural interface talks to nature and acts as a physical extension of the passion carried towards nature. More than a response, it is more like a form of respect. Also, we also connect the spaces between the east and west through a spine of communal spaces. This communal spine not only links up the entire school along the north south direction, but also acts as a buffer zone to mediate between the standardised classrooms and interactive experience spaces. The formal courtyards integrate well with the horizontal organic setbacks.
▼东侧操场视角，view to the playground on the east of the site
▼运动场也与建筑的退台肌理相呼应，the outdoor playground is situated on the east of the site establishing an interesting dialogue with the setbacks of the architecture
▼入口剖透视图，sectional perspective of the entrance area
While the communal spine tapers down from the south to the north, the main entrance is located at the southern side defined by a 4-story tall atrium with an abundance of natural light. Grand stairs institutionalise the act of entering the school and lead people up to the second story. The north of the entry atrium is a formal extension of the topographical change of the auditorium and possesses a semi-outdoor theatre which features punctures of irregular skylights. All these spatial settings instigate a milieu for a constructive dialogue between the students and teachers. Towards the northern end, there is a multi-layered system of spacious footbridges connecting the spaces along the east-west direction.
▼四层通高、带有充足高侧顶光的开放式入口中庭，the main entrance is located at the southern side defined by a 4-story tall atrium with an abundance of natural light
▼入口大台阶，the grand stair
▼南北走廊，the south-north corridor
▼多功能半室外剧场，the multi-functional theater
Creating a dialogue between the historical context, urban development, pedagogical ideas, and childhood memory, we manage to a compact spatial arrangement which integrates the horizontal and vertical dimensions within a tight site. With an intimate connection with nature, the multi-layered spaces offer flexible and diversified teaching spaces which encourage student’s activities such as meandering through, playing around and bumping into one another. In contrast to the traditional education spaces, our attempt activates and diversifies different formats of teaching. The public nature also nourishes a socially viable atmosphere for students to interact. The garden-like spaces respond to the traditional city fabric of Suzhou, and the stacking which forms the vertical academy efficiently tackles the challenge of having a lack of space in the site.
▼建筑东北角，view from the northeast
▼一层平台， F1 platform
▼二层平台， F2 platform
▼水平与垂直相结合的空间模式，the multi-layered spatial experience
内庭与外园 | Internal courtyard and external quad
Two thousand years ago, Confucian ideal advocated the poetic imagery of education: ‘having assembly under a big tree and teaching next to an apricot tree,” These aspirations of scenes in the educational setting portray a connection between school and nature. They made us dream about the natural components that conjure up a perfect place for people to learn. To provide a highly differentiated activity and interaction spaces for all the children, we introduce internal courtyards on the side sitting next to the city fabric. While we create a 3-dimensional garden as an extension of the side facing nature, a spatial hierarchy and layering of indoor and outdoor spaces offer a closer and intimate contact with nature. Without letting go about considering efficiency in layout, we form an interesting autonomy of education and learning environment. Internal and external courtyards of various sizes form different clusters and create an evocative part to the whole relationship of the entire architecture. To us, there is also a dual reading of our design. While on one hand it is a school for children to learn, it is also a ‘mixed use’ complex on the other hand for them to find enjoyable moments within.
▼由天窗照亮的图书馆，library with large skylights
The courtyard carries a symbolic meaning in traditional Chinese architecture. While confining 4 sides with views opened up to the sky, children take ownership of the serene oasis within the densely compacted city. While the courtyard has a strong sense of verticality, it is effective to fence off the undesirable hustle and bustle of the city and render an absolutely quiet environment for students to learn and think. The sunshine after school is also perfect for having leisure time or doing school work in the courtyard. The framing of the sky also resembles a collective memory of the domestic life in traditional courtyard housing.
▼内庭院空间有效地避让了周边建设中的嘈杂的城市不利因素，the courtyard is effective to fence off the undesirable hustle and bustle of the city and render an absolutely quiet environment for students to learn and think
The organically arranged setbacks are a 3-dimensional interpretation of the complex Jiang Nan garden spaces. Through the introduction of communal spaces in the vertical dimension and the horizontally extended podium facing nature, the design creates a garden experience within a tight constraint of land in the dense metropolis. Undoubtedly, childhood is the utmost important period throughout one’s growth and development. While scientific research has already validated the positive impact that the physical environment has on children’s learning and cognitive development, the stimulations of a diversified spatial arrangement play a significant role on the 3-dimensional perception children have. Visual richness in landscape also cultivates one’s mind and temperament. The unintentional visual contact between children within the landscape facilitates interaction and the external quad offers a perfect destination for holding all sorts of extracurricular activities. Being effortlessly beautiful, every child in our design owns a ‘slice’ of nature.
▼错落有致的退台能够直接地刺激学童对立体空间的感知，the stimulations of a diversified spatial arrangement play a significant role on the 3-dimensional perception children have
紧凑与松散 | Compact and loose
The land use in the existing highly dense city is problematic. Our design leverages an efficient use of land while providing a paradise for children are a key to our success. We intentionally create alternating tensions within our design approach and categories various functions into groups. Leaving room for tackling challenges of the outdoor activity spaces, the educational courtyards, the socially vibrant activity spaces and the communal spine form the 3 main components of the design. Compact and loose arrangement of spaces form antagonistic tensions, in which confront the city with a sentiment and embrace nature with affinity.
The compact arrangement of the teaching units compiles with code requirements and leaves more room for flexibility and adaptability in the remaining spaces. The entire architecture extends to both the city and nature while the outdoor playground acts as an in-between mediator. The circulation spine is frequently in use while new paths and undefined activity spaces are yet to be explored by the users. The seemingly unplanned circulation or paths are part of a planned variety of over a hundred combinations. Like one of the dreamy settings in the Hogwarts House of the Harry Porter novel, students may get easily lost and constantly discover new spatial experiences till they graduate someday in the future. Whether be it 10 or 50 years, graduates may still have new perception about the spaces in their alma mater.
▼平台活动示意，activity on different levels
▼平台上的学生活动 – 老师拍摄，student activity on the platform – photo by the teacher
The circulation system extends and merges into a loosely organized portion on one end. The system bleeds into an ambiguous terrain which allows more flexibility and expansibility. Since children are perceptually driven, the tactile contact in the social space would inject a fresh sense of vitality to all the users. With limited resources, we offer unlimited possibilities for children to be a part of the spatial scenario. All the spatial experience including the wandering in the gardens, landscapes and decks are immersive enough for users to forget all the everyday hustle and bustle. With these opposing tensions in spaces, we make a fictional oasis become reality.
▼张弛有度的空间布局，spatial arrangement balancing in tension and relaxation
传道与授业 | Preaching and teaching
Meniscus advocated that a man with noble character exhibited benevolent quality. While these people often posses wit, charisma and kindheartedness, these qualities should be part of all the criteria for an all-rounded education. Preaching and teaching are the fundamental responsibility for an academy of this kind. More than just knowledge, social capabilities and nourishment of personalities should also be equally emphasised in developing the educational curriculum. In the nowadays exam-oriented mode of teaching, students often do not have much time for social activities. The homogenised school life makes no room for a diversified social opportunity. As a result, this is problematic to train up the social skills of the younger generations. While research has already proven that varieties of collective activity spaces exert positive impact on children for building up harmoniously a relationship with one another, we believe our vertical academy is a viable mean to supplement what existing educational spaces lack. Not only does our design leverage comfort and flexibility that works well with educational purpose, it also offers possibilities for student to socialise and gain wisdom from various forms other than books.
▼体育课上的孩子们，children at their physical class
In the Suzhou Experimental Primary School, the social component is reinforced by a circulation space that wraps around it. This makes all the units accessible and triggers a variety of activities happening in these spaces. There is an abundant amount of social space introduced into the scheme. It not only fulfils the educational requirements, but also establishes a vibrancy within the campus. Our intention is not to see the student as mere users of the campus, but a part of the greater unity. Their activities and interactions are the core that become the most exciting moment in the design. Various depths and proportions of spaces allow a varying degree of privacy in space. The openness and flexibility of the outdoor playground and theatre serve as an important key to trigger student’s creativity and imagination both spatially and programmatically. The library provides spaces for solitude and gathering so that students could enjoy a moment of silence to read and think. Through the collision of different thoughts and ideas, children immerse themselves within an organic arrangement of garden settings. This also resembles a scene that Louis Kahn promoted: ‘Schools began with a man under a tree who did not know he was a teacher.’
结语 | Conclusion
Our main intention is neither continuing the typology of the academy nor purposefully making organic courtyards and setbacks. We only want to strive for an opportunity to create a unique childhood memory for the younger generation. Memories are very personal indeed. Sometimes even light penetrating through the leaves or a leaf falling on a page of a book could be profoundly memorable which one would appreciate for their lifetime. In recent site visit, we are pleased to see that the podiums facing the mountains were designed to have themes by the young teachers there. Like the school farm or bazaar are all uses that the design leverages. We hope various open spaces would trigger possibilities that exceed our imagination and nourish the children with great memories to be remembered for life. In the process of urbanization, we felt tremendously fortunate to have constructed a concrete world for our children to live with and more importantly to dream on.
▼在钢筋混凝土的洪流之中营造一方充满成长记忆的天地，a concrete world for children to live with and more importantly to dream on
▼叙事剖面 – 入口及表演空间，narrative section: entrance and performing spaces
▼叙事剖面 – 图书馆及室外平台，narrative section: library and outdoor terraces
▼叙事剖面- 操场及走廊台阶，narrative section: playground and corridors
▼一层平面图，first floor plan
▼二层平面图，second floor plan
▼三层平面图，third floor plan
▼四层平面图，fourth floor plan
主持建筑师：张 斌 / 致正建筑工作室+李 硕 / 大正建筑事务所
项目建筑师：陈颢（方案 + 扩初）、丁心慧（竞赛）
摄 影 师：夏至、陈颢
Credits and Data
Project Name: Experimental Primary School of Suzhou Science and Technology Town
Architects: ZHANG Bin / Atelier Z+, LI Shuo / D-plus Studio
Project Architect: CHEN Hao (Schematic Design & Developing Design), DING Xinhui (Compitition)
Project Team: WU Renjie, ZHANG Jinxia, XIE Linbo, XU Jiajin
Design Cooperation: China Railway Engineering Design Institute Co., Ltd.
Location: 88 Keye Road, Science and Technology Town, National New and Hi-tech Industrial Development Zone, Suzhou, Jiangsu Province
Client: Social Programs Service Center of Suzhou Science and Technology Town
Time: Jun., 2013 – Sep., 2015
Site Area: 43880m2
Gross Floor Area: 53422m2
Cost: 250,000,000Yuan RMB
Photography: XIA Zhi ，CHEN Hao