Environment as the third educator
Does the design of a classroom have an influence on learning outcomes? Many experts answer this question with a resounding “yes”. The new-build of the Astrid Lindgren School in Lemgo is considered a model project, both in architectural and in educational terms.

A series of heavy, numbered doors line the way along echoing corridors. Behind each door is a classroom, with a board at the front, mounted right behind the teacher’s desk. An overhead projector is situated next the desk, which is facing orderly rows of school desks and chairs. This is usually the picture we have in mind when we think of a school. But Loris Malaguzzi, one of the founders of the Reggio Emilia approach to early childhood education, was already devising alternatives to this traditional classroom setup back in the 1960s, in an effort to dissolve the border between lecturer and listener, between study time and recreation, between individual work and teamwork. Malaguzzi coined the phrase “environment as the third educator” and called for more flexibility in the classroom. His ideas were met with considerable interest at the international level – not just in the field of education but also in the political and architectural spheres. With the aim of promoting the learners’ creativity, schools were built with open spatial concepts that used almost no partitions at all. However, with very few exceptions, the concept was unable to gain acceptance. Besides the noise volume, it was primarily the fact that the curriculum was not adapted to the new class setup, as well as the failure to involve teachers in the school design process, which resulted in the discontinuation of these so-called “learning landscapes” at the time.



This was handled completely differently in the new-build of the Astrid Lindgren School, including its vocational development centre, in the North Rhine-Westphalian town of Lemgo. Granted, it was also about half a century later. “We were pleased that our school authorities included us in the design process from the very start and welcomed our participation throughout the construction process – something you still don’t always experience in our field, unfortunately,” explains headmistress Gudrun Laag. “The first question we had to ask ourselves was: What visions do we have for our school as a place of learning, living and experiencing things? With this question in mind, we undertook a project with the agency LernLandSchaft, whose support had been enlisted by our school district; in various workshops and over the course of several months, we worked together in developing books relating to educational room functions. In the tender process, these books then provided the key foundation for the architectural design of the two locations.” The school authorities, school administration and bidders spent about twelve months perfecting the plan for the Astrid Lindgren School, including its vocational development centre. Within the framework of a public-private partnership, GOLDBECK’s bids were accepted for both parts of the project; and in spring 2022 – after a construction period lasting about 20 months – GOLDBECK completed the handover of both facilities.

What makes this project different is that the Astrid Lindgren School is a special school with a focus on intellectual development. It’s especially important for our students to have multipurpose rooms that allow for the further breakdown of groups even within an individual class. We need conventional classrooms as well as rooms where noise-sensitive children can withdraw and work in a quiet setting. Since exercise and interaction also play an important role, we’ve structured parallel classes around open “marketplaces”, which offer an overseeable space for play and recreation, while also serving us as an extended learning space.” In the field of education and school architecture, what Gudrun Laag is describing here is known today as a “cluster school” or a “classroom-plus model”. In contrast to the conventional classroom-based layout, these open and multifunctional room structures and special design elements allow for the integration of different learning styles – across all types of schools and age brackets. The “Partnership for 21st Century Learning” initiative, among others, are certain that this flexible approach will promote problem-solving and creative thinking – essential skills for living and working in the 21st century, where knowledge is limited to a half-life, careers are constantly being redefined and lifelong learning has become more important than ever.


Another crucial factor for new school buildings is their integration in their surroundings. Key functional areas, such as sports halls and assembly rooms, should ideally be shared by local residents, associations and other institutions. At the Astrid Lindgren School, the participative design process even went a step further, as Gudrun Laag explains: “In 2014, due to water damage in our old building, we were forced to find an alternative space for our vocational training level at short notice. We found such a space at the Lüttfeld-Berufskolleg on the Innovation Campus in Lemgo. During this time, we once again realised how enriching this type of sharing can be – for everyone involved – and how many great partnership possibilities can be found in our immediate surroundings.” The outcome: When the decision was made for a new-build of the Astrid Lindgren School, which had previously been based in one of Lemgo’s rural suburbs, it was clear that the school would be changing locations. The school’s new main site was constructed directly in the town of Lemgo, across from the Karla Raveh comprehensive school. Functional rooms – such as workshops, the swimming pool and music room – will, of course, be shared. The school’s vocational development centre, however, was built on the Innovation Campus, about two kilometres from the main site; it includes a campus canteen that will be shared by students from the Lüttfeld-Berufskolleg and by the vocational training level of the Astrid Lindgren School.


Manuela Kupsch, director of the Eigenbetrieb Schulen education authority for the Lippe district, sees multiple reasons why the two locations serve as architectural and pedagogical beacons: “The choice of location and the learning environments offer the best opportunities for successful inclusion and interaction, allowing students from the Karla Raveh comprehensive school, Lüttfeld-Berufskolleg and Astrid Lindgren School to learn from each other. This enables students with special needs to receive as much latitude as possible while also having as much protected space as necessary. This communality and participation were already experienced during the design and construction process. The Lippe school district focuses on maintaining a strong partnership with its schools. It was only through the close and trusting cooperation of all participants, starting from an early stage, that these new and unique educational and architectural concepts could be created for combined teaching, learning and meeting spaces.”

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