educational centre for the sensory impaired

design for a school for the aurally and visually impaired for architects ZLS, with siegfried miedl
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A diversified scenery as a differentiated learning environment

Perception and Development

In perception, even normal perception, only parts of the scenery of reality are actively picked out. In the process of perception or cognition, structures and patterns are scanned in order to filter out the invariables and thus to understand correlations. As learning research and brain research confirm, human beings are motivated by curiosity, the drive to savvy, i.e. the unrelenting desire to learn and understand, because knowledge is fun. Children in particular want to learn, explore and discover.

The design of the learning environment should therefore be about stimulating attention through the formation of differences and irregularities. Differentiation of the learning environment enables individualisation of learning; it makes a variety of offers and creates spaces for movement that promote motor-haptic experience through varied and changing perspectives. Such a learning environment allows children the freedom of movement and leaves them the initiative to make their own choice from the resources offered.

These principles, which correspond to the current state of research, are not new. They go back to the development of reform educational concepts from Comenius to Pestalozzi to Montessori, Freinet or Piaget. The core points of these concepts, in which Montessori and Piaget, for example, agreed, are the development of the human being from the interaction of organism and environment, the self-organisation of the child as a principle of education, the correspondence of changing challenges of the environment with the respective learning phase as well as the child’s own activity as a basis for the development to independence. The latter is considered the educational goal: the development of a psychologically healthy and independent personality that can perceive and use its talents and compensate for its weaknesses.

‚All psychologists agree, by the way, that there is only one way of teaching: to arouse deepest interest and thus lively and lasting attention’. Maria Montessori

School as a scenery for learning

The present design for the ‘Educational Centre for the Sensory Impaired’ in Linz is therefore aimed at creating a stimulating developmental environment, at developmental spaces that leave room for research and discovery and at the same time have the character of a call to action. The planning has been carefully coordinated with the school’s board of directors and teachers’ committee and has been precisely adapted and tailored to the special needs of this specially oriented school.

The design works conceptually with the notion of a backdrop or scenery: The developmental environment with the sensory experiences and materials it contains represents the access to the world and thus the backdrop against which development takes place. The term backdrop or scenery refers to the area, environment or spatial effect in general as well as to the dummy or illusion and, in theatre in particular, to the stage space, the stage set and the stage equipment.

Different settings are conceived as interlocking spaces, as spaces for movement and experience with different characters: as a learning setting, as it were, which allows us to look behind the scenes and to understand that some things are only settings. The attractive location of the site with its wooded slope and urban surroundings forms the basis for a staging of the school in the interplay of forest scenery and urban scenery: The natural terrain, the wooded slope, as a protected space for adventure and play forms the forest backdrop, while the urban, public space with historical elements such as the monastery and cathedral as well as the traffic embodies the city backdrop. The concept of school and outdoor space responds to these existing spaces and reinforces and uses them.

The space of the forest backdrop is led to and into the building: The building opens up to the wooded slope. A sheltered, arena-like area with seating steps is created in the opening, which can be used for performances, for example. This stairs down to the ground floor with a covered open-air area for workshops and continues to the entrance area on the street level. The first floor connects directly to the slope and the second floor is connected via a terrace, so that the space of the forest backdrop extends into the interior of all floors and can be perceived from the common areas.

Towards the urban space, the school itself forms a striking element in the surrounding scenery and projects right up to the street space. The classrooms and special teaching rooms are arranged in a panorama-like manner with corresponding visual references to the surrounding urban space. On the ground floor, there is a gallery that forms a viewing platform above the preserved monastery wall.

Forest façade and city façade

Accordingly, the façades are designed as a forest façade and a city façade: The structure of an abstracted wood grain is printed on the forest façade. The city façade consists of a structure of varying openings and rectangular pixels. The varying openings correspond to the varying offers that the façade makes in the classrooms: the closed areas are equipped from the inside with shelves that are cut out according to the course of the openings. The staggered heights create situations with benches, parapet-high shelves for storing frequently used teaching materials, and window areas that reach down to the floor. On the one hand, this creates a high quality for the interior spaces and, at the same time, a strong sculptural quality and depth effect of the façade, both inside and out. The irregularities in the variation of the openings correspond with the principle of individualisation: as in learning, there is no standardisation and no simple serialisation in the façade.

The pattern of the rectangular pixels, or the distribution of the coloured areas, is developed from a graphic abstraction of the surrounding city panorama projected onto the façade. The mirrored black-and-white panorama was rasterised and reduced to six brightness levels. Three pixels each were averaged into a rectangle and then the brightest and darkest levels were interpreted as colours.

Both facades illustrate the perceptual process of scanning structures in the visual field to extract information. The viewer searches for the underlying principle, which, however, can partly only be discovered in the interior, as the variation of the openings is also explained by the interior qualities. The fact that perception is always a process of active attention and that a limited perception is a different and not a deficient perception can be illustrated here.

The interior spaces

The design intends to keep the rooms outside the classes as large as possible, so that these – beyond their function as corridors – can be used in a variety of ways as communal areas and – at the request of the teachers – can also function as extended classrooms. These rooms have a high quality because the forest backdrop can be perceived from here.

The classrooms (especially of the integration classes) as well as the special education rooms are deliberately designed to be different and not a sequence of similar boxes: These differences can be discovered and experienced and represent a varied offer to perception. Rooms widen and narrow, form niches, corners and angles, edges present themselves differently in perspective.

These configurations also offer functional diversity: they allow different zoning of the rooms for different forms of teaching: In addition to frontal teaching, work is also done with Montessori materials, and lessons also take place as individually supported free work and independent action. Niches and opportunities for retreat are expressly desired. Social learning plays a major role; social behaviour is in the foreground.

Set elements from the theatre such as stage, gallery, podium, platform, ramp, partition, recess or curtain have already been integrated into the planning in a transferred form or can be included in the course of further detailed planning.

The classes for the blind are accommodated in a separate area on the ground floor, as they have their own requirements. The integration classes and classes for the hearing-impaired are distributed over the first and second floors, the first being assigned to the primary school and the second to the secondary school.

Acoustic scenery

The room configurations are also particularly favourable in terms of acoustic effect, as they minimise background noise. This effect is further enhanced by the material furnishings.

Furthermore, possibilities for a perception-related design exist, for example, in the intensification of sound qualities of spaces, such as a transfer of the soundscape from the wooded slope (birds chirping, leaves rustling, etc.) to the entrance and waiting area at street level. Cooperation with artists working in this field would be desirable.