Comments on the Building of a Waldorf School

Felix Durach

Translated by Dr. Erna McArthur


Dear Friends,

Since we began our site in the Spring of 1996, we have often received questions about the architecture of Waldorf schools. At long last we discovered the essay reprinted below which gives an idea of the conceptual basis of school architecture, and in particular, how the architecture, the physical structure of the classrooms, can support the learning activities that take place in them.

We are thankful to the Association of Waldorf Schools in North America (AWSNA) for permission to reprint this article, originally published in Volume 4, Number 7 of the "Waldorf Science Newsletter." For supplementary reading, you may be interested in a volume published by AWSNA entitled Waldorf Education World-Wide which contains photos of many schools around the world.

You can obtain back issues of the "Waldorf Science Newsletter" and/or copies of Waldorf Education World-Wide at:

AWSNA Publications
3911 Bannister Road
Fair Oaks, CA 95628
Phone: (916) 961-0927


Happy reading!

 

Bob and Nancy

Note: This document is available in Microsoft Word format (89K) and as a ZIP compressed file (25K).





A good teacher can impart atmosphere to every room, but her gifts will be enhanced if the spatial arrangement as such can help her.

Children actually experience all of their surroundings: room, wallpaper, furniture, colors, and even the air in the classroom. All this can be either friendly or oppressive. This fact has recently led to very noteworthy efforts towards a new solution to the task of building schools. Above all, the builder seriously considers the child and what he experiences while in school. One-storied, brightly-lit buildings are dispersed on the building site. The surrounding nature is carefully preserved and used in the landscaping of the grounds.

Should the Waldorf school movement simply adopt these new ideas? The movement will be in the following position: it can wholeheartedly affirm these efforts to create a new style in the building of schools. It will strive for something just as modern, or even more modern. But this can be done only in the spirit of harmonizing spatial formations and Waldorf school pedagogy. It can create building forms only out of the original impulse also pervading this pedagogy. Then we shall build in an essential and truthful manner. This applies to the fundamental part of all school buildings. Even though, in many cases, local or timely conditions may necessitate measures that do not correspond to the Waldorf pedagogy, in the present essay we are interested in the fundamental principle of building a Waldorf school in such a way that the artistic space formation is in harmony with the Waldorf pedagogy. Of course, the art of architecture wants to carry out every commission in an artistic way, and the more so, where the art of education is already an artistic demand. This characterizes the point where parents, teachers, and architect may meet. This must be the primary consideration among all the others, and should be emphasized as decisively as possible! A Waldorf school will be built in an essential and truthful way if it emerges out of the spirit working in the art of this pedagogy. Then this spirit will find its true home in such a building. If parents, teachers, and architect share this insight and direct their common volition to this aim, the spirit of harmony with the Waldorf idea will be at work. For then, understanding and will forces can realize a deed born out of a free spiritual life.

Even though, in many cases, local or timely conditions may necessitate measures that do not correspond to the Waldorf pedagogy, in the present essay we are interested in discussing this problem only in a general way. The orientation stands on common ground with the aim of Waldorf pedagogy: insight into the being of the human being gained by means of Anthroposophy.

We do not intend to indicate a new style or give recipes for the building of Waldorf schools. Also, a Waldorf school must be compared with other school buildings with regard to spatial needs and the arrangement of rooms. The differences to be considered by the builder are approximately the following:

  1. Identical concepts must become flexible and thus have a different effect.
  2. The quantitative element must be enlarged through the qualitative.
  3. General concepts must be made concrete by grasping the articulation of each separate building.

Let us take, for instance, the general concept of "space." Then we can state that "space" is by no means given to us as a receptacle for vague ideas of a theoretical kind. Concretely, we can speak only of a differentiated experiencing of spatial relationships.

To begin with, we must notice that, in reality, our relationship towards the three spatial directions is differentiated, in contrast to mathematical thinking where the three coordinates can be arbitrarily interchanged. Moreover, we observe the effects of the three spatial coordinates in their characteristic relationship to the three-foldness of our soul life - thinking, feeling, and willing. If an architect knows these relationships and takes them into account, then the Waldorf teacher will understand him, for the teacher, in his turn, needs rooms in which thinking, feeling, and willing can be harmonized. These indications should not be considered as something supplementary. The threefoldness of the human organization, with its important and weighty consequences, has been discovered by the investigations of Dr. Rudolf Steiner. For the architect, these facts lead to an exact understanding of space and the translating of this research into the artistic field. He cannot build a school for growing children without these insights. The Waldorf teacher will be grateful and help him in these endeavors.

The architectural principle, in this fundamental form, shows us how to transpose intellectual concepts into mobile applications. This is the path from the quantitative to the qualitative and the concrete articulation of a general and abstract idea.

What the child experiences as above and below, as summit and abyss, enters into his feelings. What is in front or behind either spurs on his will forces or represses them. Right and left stimulate comparisons, the faculty of judging. In each of these coordinates are counter directions, which must be experienced in different ways. Feeling "lifts itself" toward what is above and becomes oppressed when descending to that which is below. Right and left have an influence on destiny. If the architect is told by the teacher that, in Waldorf education, four temperaments are observed in the pupils, then the three spatial coordinates, with their respective counter directions, are experienced in a fourfold coloration: the choleric child is active and something of a rowdy; the sanguine child many-sided, but possibly superficial; the melancholic child brooding on the past and, at the same time, cautious; the phlegmatic child indifferent and slow. These 24 possibilities result in an infinitely differentiated interplay of spatial experiences, within which one or the other dimension and one or the other temperament may dominate. The nature of a building intended for a Waldorf school demands the qualitative understanding of the dimensional correspondences.

Now this question arises: what results from these insights when they are applied to practical solutions? The question can be answered through the consideration that such insights belong already to the domain of a free spiritual life, which can be trusted also in regard to practical applications.

Symmetry

Starting out from the axis or middle, we compare the one side with the other. Comparison is possible only because of the fact that we ourselves are, in a certain degree, symmetrically built. Our body has a right and a left side. Comparing, pondering, and considering leads to the statement that we are confronted with either identical or non-identical objects. Identical, things can be assimilated without effort, while the non-identical disturbs us until such a time when we can also assimilate it through our own activity, in a higher sense. Thus, asymmetry stimulates our will power. We must do something about the asymmetrical, while symmetry does not excite us, but only mediates a feeling of concordance. In Waldorf school, both elements are present. Symmetry provides community feeling through an act of passive acceptance; asymmetry, by stimulating the will, tends to overcome the non-identical! When the child encounters asymmetry, he must find an equivalent in another place. He experiences in his feeling the path leading from one to the other. In the symmetrical, he experiences, without effort, a static balance; in asymmetry, he produces this balance through his own activity, thus establishing a dynamic equilibrium. This interplay of the statically given and the dynamically achieved symbolizes, in architectural form, the child's experiences in the school community: on the one hand, things come to meet him, while, on the other hand, he must contribute something to the life around him.

The Class Room

This is essentially the school within the school. Just as Goethe saw in the leaf the plant's fundamental organ, so the classroom is the fundamental space of the whole school. The rooms are arranged along a corridor like leaves on a stem. Each classroom. contains the potentiality of a whole school. However, we must not look at them singly, but as a continuity. Just as the leaf's fundamental form is transformed, so the simplest fundamental shape of the rooms should be changed as the children change from year to year. This change can take place almost imperceptibly by means of the subtlest nuances. Then the rooms accompany the growing child. This spatial accompaniment, corresponding to the metamorphosis of the plant, is more important than the "organic" and individual form, although this too may be needed. The organic form is artistically truthful only if it can be understood as directed by the tendency towards metamorphosis.

A classroom should not have a so-called perfect architectural form. Architecture should only stimulate a dialogue - one that is as varied as possible. For the teacher, it should be something like a spatial friend of education. Actually, however, the room consists only of six planes: floor, ceiling, and walls. Moreover, the Waldorf school will retain the customary measurements: 10.5 ft. high; approximately 20 ft. wide; and 22 ft. deep, starting out from the windowed wall. So, where is the freedom of design? Apart from color, light sources, arrangement of tables and chairs, etc., just the seemingly elementary norm of six planes constituting space provides the architect with an archetypal motif: the inclination of the planes towards one another! This inclination is present in a normal, rectangular construction through the customary choice of the rectangle, but it produces a static and neutral effect. However, if we depart from the rectangle - which is undoubtedly correct in the right place - we achieve effects that could be called dynamic. They "induce movement"! Let me clarify this statement by a few examples.

A classroom, which widens itself out towards the teacher through a slight divergence of the longitudinal wall, will affect the children spatially in such a way that they open themselves to the teacher. If the ceiling ascends in the same direction, then this spatial gesture induces attention. The children look up to the teacher. Both gestures awaken the children!

Such a space formation helps the teacher in a way that he will experience as beneficial. Towards the rear, the space will close up through the converging walls and the descending ceiling. Thus, he feels himself united also with those who sit in the rear.

In the upper grades it may be correct if the longitudinal walls indicate a convergence, while the ceiling ascends towards the blackboard. All this heightens attention and concentration.

However, such spatial gestures should remain almost imperceptible. An exaggerated use of such devices would make the space a one-sided-something which we should avoid at all costs. It helps neither the educator nor the pupil if they have to spend a whole year in a pointedly oblique space, unless a marked asymmetry is balanced by compensatory forms. In the case of specific rooms, such as instruction in natural science or in eurythmy, this could be done in a conscious way. Both the architect and the teacher should reflect on the relationship of rooms with a static or dynamic effect. Both concepts could be worked out in such a way that they would become filled with an almost obvious reality. They are not merely aesthetic and superficial concepts.

The window wall and the arrangement of lights demand the most thorough artistic consideration. It is not enough to use standard units. In order to live in the "many-colored afterglow," we must provide light and darkness. Color can be truthfully experienced only if the deeds and sufferings of light are experienced within the medium of color. Then color is "weaving" within the manifested secret. In a Waldorf school, light should never become "obnoxious." The wealth of summery light should be transformed into the life of color.

On the other hand, a Waldorf school will not want to wipe out the difference between outdoor life and school life. For the child it will be helpful to experience a definite alternation between outdoors and school. Such lucid differentiations increase the possibility of experiencing both environments. Pavilion schools will not always be able to produce such a feeling. The arrangement of lights should arouse a feeling that light and darkness are weaving into each other, although the classroom as a whole should be bright and friendly. But this weaving together of light and dark must be artistically experienced if the colors - also as colored shadows - are to be given their artistic significance. A Waldorf teacher will be able to interpret the outer convenience of letting the children receive the light from the left in a qualitative way, for instance, in connection with the activity of the right hand and the secret that we write from left to right. He will also understand the necessity of indicating in some way that the light shines down from above. Therefore, it is questionable whether the customary way of letting down the blinds from above to below promotes this qualitative experiencing of the light. It would be better to darken the room in the opposite direction.

What possibility does the fundamental form of the classroom give for the metamorphosis we have mentioned? There is the interplay of two components: one creates a community through the fact that teacher and pupils gather in this space; the other component is given through teaching and learning. The latter function will provide the room with a variously tinged orientation. Thus, the room will be subject to change, depending on the predominance of one or the other motif and the evolution of the pupils. This, however, should not be laid down as a rigid scheme. Here again an articulation is needed, which will not only maintain the unity of the school but make it more characteristic. This articulation, which could even include a division into three buildings, starts out from the lowest grade with the little children. The next group, as mainstay of the school, consists of the intermediate grades, to be followed by the smaller group of the upper grades. The intermediate grades are the ones who have been best "incorporated" into the school. These include grades six to eight. The teacher will have to decide the exact division of the grades. The littlest children must gradually learn to participate in the school life. The older pupils already anticipate their departure. The intermediate grades are in the middle; they provide the firm support of the school. This intermediate stage cannot be equated with the other common and central halls, such as that for gymnastics or eurythmy. It is the intermediate element in the whole evolution of the school. Here, on the whole, a symmetrical design will be appropriate. The structure for the lower grades will have to be built with great deliberation, while that for the upper grades needs freedom, spaciousness, and a certain tinge of elegance. It can have clearly defined, rectangular spaces with flights of stairs, terraces, etc. The lower grades may have rooms in which the tendency towards the rounded is translated into the architectural idiom: structures that are almost square or octagonal, etc. The lowest grade should be symmetrical with a slightly vaulted ceiling. The higher grades should transmit to the students a spatial gesture of controlled asymmetry.

What is the essential background of modern man? It is the layers of earthly and cultural epochs! Man is thoroughly prepared for his own age only if he carries within himself the epochs of the past transformed into concentrated abilities. This means, if applied to the school buildings, that they should not stand there like pavilions that have been, as it were, wafted onto the sand, but as structures letting us read the language of past epochs. This, however, should not be done by means of symbolic representations painted on the walls. This language should be "incorporated" or "built- in." Is this possible? It is possible, especially in the structures for the intermediate grades, which might consist of two or three stories. These indications of the past could be built into the structure without artifice and in a meaningful way. In the lower story, the supporting cement pillars could be shaped in a way transmitting something of the atmosphere of Egyptian stone masses. In the middle story, we could give a hint of Grecian balance. And it would be fascinating to conjure up the Medieval epoch through the symmetry of Gothic structures. All this should be only indicated. Undoubtedly it would be a valuable pedagogical idea to let the children experience within the building the results of past cultural epochs. This, as it were, provides us with the cultural-historical permission to use modern building methods. What is modern in a justified sense? This means that the functions of each part of the building are clearly expressed and that the materials demonstrate their characteristic nature by means of the forms, etc.

Now we must allude to something that is extremely subtle and yet most significant: reverence joined to the fullest affirmation of a healthy joy of life! What place in the building will lead the children to reverence? That is the threshold, the door, the portal. For reasons of safety, we avoid high thresholds. Yet the architect must observe with artistic accuracy how he opens a door. Here, too, we can use purely architectural methods without painting proverbs on the wall. For instance, the ceiling could be slightly inclined towards the door. We can surround the door with a form speaking to the child's feelings. We can form the door latch in such a way that the child palpably feels: I may not enter unless I am duly prepared, and I am looking forward to entering this room. Moreover, the child should leave the school every day differently from the way he entered it. Also, this difference should find its artistic expression by means of the door. What has been indicated in this essay could also contribute to the building of schools for retarded children in need of special care and institutions for curative pedagogy. In constructing such buildings, the architect would be able to promote those forces in the child which point upward and which could bring thinking, feeling, and willing into a healthy equilibrium.

 




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