The end of the school corridor
“De Vonk” means “spark” and is the name of the new play-and-education campus in Knokke, Belgium. The low complex of buildings on the outskirts of a chic seaside resort, out where the houses give way to fields, is home to a kindergarten and a primary school. The ensemble was designed by Amsterdam’s NL Architects, who won this year’s Mies van der Rohe Awards.
From the outside it all seems familiar: a single-storey pavilion architecture, with an anodized metal façade, large French windows, with a wraparound outside sheltered walkway made of prefabricated concrete. In the middle stands a raised cubic structure round which the other building sections have been arranged. The largest of these wings is crowned by a greened roof shaped like an inverted funnel.
The complex is surrounded on all sides by playgrounds, green zones and gardens, and interfaces with them thanks to the French windows and the covered walkway. If you step indoors from one of the walkways you notice that the entire building has been slightly sunk into the ground: Floor level is a good bit below the level of the grounds. The wooden window sills have been broadened to form benches. And a little further along you soon notice the next key design feature: In this building the architects have almost completely dispensed with corridors. They achieve this by broadening almost every access route such that it can be used as a communication area or as a learning or play zone.
To this end they have organized the building’s four main functions – primary school, kindergarten, admin and the school cafeteria – around the central multifunctional hall, which serves among others as the break-time room, sports hall and aula. It is higher than the other components. A strip of windows beneath the ceiling lets daylight in. The architects have created a large playground area between the hall itself and the building wings, with the hall’s wooden-paneled outside walls functioning as a “programmed wall”. It features seating niches of various shapes as well as book and magazine shelves.
The spatial organization of the building wings is derived from their respective functions: The primary school classrooms are arranged around a central plaza that can serve either learning or play. Here, the central element is a large podium beneath the afore-mentioned funnel-shaped roof section. At its base are sanitary facilities and storerooms, and on it there are group and single-person work spaces beneath a large skylight. High stairs also form a small auditorium. Like the multi-purpose hall, you can walk right round the podium, so there are no “dead corners” and cul-de-sacs.
In the kindergarten wing the group rooms are instead accessed from a long “play street” with several smaller skylights. Double-wing glass doors foster a sense of transparency between the two areas. The “street” culminates in an exit to the kindergarten playground. A large canopy roof ensures outside and inside interact and creates a break space that is protected against the elements.