The new world needs a new school

The young and emerging Finnish architecture firm AOR Architects has built up expertise in designing learning spaces to meet the needs of Finland’s new national curriculum. This autumn, AOR has completed their first major work, the Jätkäsaari School in Helsinki.

In the world of fake news and an abundance of information pouring in, children need to learn media criticism from early on. The traditional role of schools as sources of knowledge has evolved to assisting the pupils in identifying relevant and reliable information and making connections between different phenomena.

The Finnish firm AOR Architects has studied new kinds of spatial solutions for learning spaces to address the needs of today’s educational requirements.

Completed in August 2019, Jätkäsaari School in Helsinki is one of the first school buildings designed entirely in accordance with Finland’s new national curriculum, which was introduced in 2016. The curriculum emphasises e.g. phenomenon-based and multidisciplinary learning, and the new teaching and learning methods require new kinds of learning spaces.

The brief

In 2015, an open international architecture competition was launched to design a comprehensive school for 800 pupils from 1st to 9th class in Jätkäsaari, the new shoreline city district of Helsinki. The building was to function not only as a school but a community centre for the inhabitants of the new city district. It is one of the few public buildings in the area and hence plays an important role in creating an identity for the area under development.

The young architect trio Erkko Aarti, Arto Ollila and Mikki Ristola – still students at the time of the competition – submitted their entry and, from among 137 entries in total, were selected winners. Hence was founded AOR Architects. Their competition entry stood out due to the building’s compact, block-like form as well as the innovative spatial solutions.

The project took off immediately after the competition stage. The design team worked closely with the City of Helsinki and the school’s future teachers. The architects developed further the spatial programme by listening to the pedagogical experts’ wishes and needs and interpreting them into spaces. Also workshops with the future pupils were organised.

The City of Helsinki had great ambitions in regards to the Jätkäsaari School project. The objective is that new school buildings are, in addition to being outstanding learning environments, sustainable and easy to maintain, with a lifespan of min. 100 years.  The importance of the new city district adjacent to the city centre raised the bar even higher. For guaranteeing the high quality, the constructor was taken onboard from an early stage.

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The location

Protruding far into the open sea, Jätkäsaari cape was occupied by the industrial harbour until 2008, when a new harbour was opened outside the city in the east and the area was vacated for development. Only a few old harbour structures and warehouses have remained bordering the vast flat terrain created mostly by landfill.

Construction in the area started in 2010. When completed by the end of the 2020s, Jätkäsaari will be home to 21,000 residents and 6,000 workplaces, making it one of rapidly growing Helsinki’s biggest new city centre developments. The almost seven million annual ferry passengers traveling to and from Tallinn via the terminal situated at the tip of Jätkäsaari bring additional activity to the area.

The school is situated at the edge of the new development, facing the terminal, with an open view to the Baltic Sea. It is visible from far away, welcoming travellers to Helsinki. The block-like building stands out in the cityscape and at the same time adapts to the surrounding urban structure by carefully thought-out placement, creating clear street spaces and a sheltered school yard open for everyone.

The building

In a country with harsh climate conditions such as Finland, a compact building form is the most energy efficient, in regards to both heating in the winter and sheltering from excessive sunlight in the summer. Due to the form and optimal placement of window openings, the school is close to a zero-energy building.

The main façade material is fiber-reinforced white concrete, which is less porous than regular concrete. It functions well in the humid and windy maritime conditions. In contrast to the clean white surface, the ground floor is clad in handmade, twice fired brick, a down-to-earth material with a tangible feel.

The brick surfaces continue inside, fading out the limit between the exterior and the interior. The floors are of dark Finnish granite. The ground floor is organised as an urban space, with streets and squares, and the scale is intimate and welcoming.

In contrast, in the heart of the building there is a central square, an impressive three-storey high atrium space, around which all the learning spaces twirl. The multifunctional atrium serves as a canteen, auditorium, assembly hall, venue for concerts and events and encounters. The high open space with skylights in the core of the building allows natural light into the deep building frame. The school activities happening in and visible to the atrium create communality among different-aged pupils, a sense of belonging.

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In this school, there is a minimum of corridor spaces, and even those are learning spaces: there are cushioned niches carved into the wall for individual learning and built-in spots for small groups to study in. The aim was to create a building, which would, in spite of its big size and large number of pupils, feel comfortable and safe, even for the youngest pupils. As a reaction to the children’s wishes to have a sauna built in the school, the architects designed a cubicle in the form of a sauna for sitting around and getting inspired.

The workshops, home education classes, art ateliers and spaces for music and dance are situated on the ground floor, opening to the outside with large windows and hence bringing colour and activities into the streetscape. In the evening time, these spaces are occupied by local associations and operators offering free-time activities.

The two upper floors house the more private spaces, the learning units, which consist of a lobby area and flexible, different sized learning spaces. One of the six units is more traditional with classrooms partitioned by glass walls. Four of the units have both open space and closed-in spaces, whereas the most experimental unit has no dividing walls at all: if needed, the space can be divided in different ways by acoustic textile curtains. All the HVAC and electricity fixtures have been designed in such a way that partitioning walls can easily be added later, if it appears that the open space doesn’t function well or the needs change. Within a lifespan of more than 100 years, adaptability is an elementary precondition.

The overall colour scheme of the school is subdued, because an open learning space requires a calm background – and the children and their artwork bring the colour. All the surface materials are durable and sound, such as cast-in-situ concrete in floors and oak in wood surfaces and fixed furniture. In an open learning environment, the role of furniture is emphasised. The fixtures designed by the architects form a harmonious entity, and only durable, good-quality furniture was chosen, such as Artek stools and Flos lamps.

The learning units also include outdoor classrooms. On the large balconies, children can, even within a dense urban structure, be in contact with nature and at the same time observe themselves as being an active part of the urban community. The wood-cladded balconies bring warmth to the white exterior surface and accents to the grid-like pattern of windows.

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The learning units of different aged pupils are accessed from the courtyard via separate staircases. The scheme of the school yard, a colourful world map – also used for learning –, was conceived by the architects. The outdoor spaces were designed by Näkymä Landscape Architects.

The pedagogics

The building offers open and flexible spaces that encourage children to learn and collaborate. According to the principles of the new curriculum, learning can also happen outside the classroom, individually or together with other pupils. Some children need more help from the teacher, some more private time to concentrate. Each pupil can find a favourite spot for learning in the school.

Teachers of different subjects plan and teach the phenomenon-based entities together. The organisation of the building activates cooperation between school subjects and grade levels and encourages to move around and use the whole building for learning.

The office

Founded in 2015 by Erkko Aarti, Arto Ollila and Mikki Ristola, today AOR Architects employs ten designers. Among the office’s ongoing projects are two new school buildings: Tuusula High School and Community Centre, ​the world’s largest massive timber log school based on a 2018 competition win and to be completed in 2021, and XAMK – South-Eastern Finland University of Applied Sciences estimated for 2023. A competition win that generated much international interest in 2017 is the extension to Tampere Art Museum, which is now in the design stage for realisation.

In addition to the numerous competition wins and prizes in Finland, Erkko, Arto and Mikki have had success in international competitions. As a consequence, the first realised project of the trio was the Viewpoint Pavilion in London, constructed in the Camley Street Natural Park in 2014. AOR’s design for a new visitor centre at the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Petäjävesi Old Church has been awarded the Finnish Association of Architects’ Wuorio prize as well as a Commendation in the Silver Medal Category of RIBA President’s Medals 2016. Together with the Nordic Works Collective of young architecture practices, AOR was awarded the 2016 Pietilä Prize for special achievement in reforming architecture. Read more at www.aor.fi.

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