The Choice School: reimagining the architecture of education

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The new educational community at The Choice School seeks to reimagine the architecture of education in India, creating a prototype that will revitalize rural communities and empower future generations of children by providing an academic hub that is ingrained in the community’s culture, heritage and geography. Here’s a brief.


The Choice School Thiruvalla 
Architect and interior designer: CetraRuddy 
Location: Thiruvalla, Kerala, India 
Scale: 23,500 square meters; Ground + 4 Levels

Building on the already close-knit society of rural India, the prototype houses grades 1-12 in one building, fostering relationships between students of different ages and allowing for a continuum of learning. The school consists of a Primary School Block, Middle School Block and High School Block, each containing their own entry, school administration offices, classrooms, library and student commons. This block suggests a conceptual progression of independence as students move from a more dependently organized Primary School to a more independently organized High School. As students grow intellectually, emotionally and socially, the spatial progression adapts to changing needs between younger and older students.

Design vision

For its new grade 1-12 campus serving 2,500 students, the client, Choice School, wanted to focus on experiential learning: training children to explore, experience and learn/observe. From a facility perspective, Choice School leaders sought to emphasize the process of learning rather than the process of testing and certification. From a design standpoint, the facility needed to embody this philosophy and help enhance creativity and instill a sense of purpose, adventure and enjoyment in the learning process. The buildings and grounds had to provide an environment congenial for nurturing the innate abilities of the students and promoting the development of “lifelong learners.”

Client and design team goals

Given the client’s belief that 21st Century learning extends beyond class-based instruction and includes a program of direct, hands-on engagement, the overarching goal for the campus was to create a vibrant new model that would also allow for incremental expansion of the facilities in order to educate students from grades one through twelve as they advance and the school population expands over time.

In terms of sitting and layout, the program goals prioritized the educational experience: encouraging a sense of independence as students move through the grades; creating, visible individual identities for each of the Primary, Middle and High School blocks; and establishing the public/private division of required programs such as the Academic, Health, Sports, Spiritual and Performing Arts centers.

The design team and client also determined that a major element of the design should be the visibility of the learning and social environments. Intersecting views and vistas enable students to see where they are in the campus at all times, in order to visually and spatially embody the connectivity begun in the classroom.

Specific design goals included: The development of a circulation hierarchy to distinguish not only the individual school blocks but also the grade levels within; the creation of a gateway to the campus intended to foster a sense of arrival and place for the children; the development of activity “nodes” laced throughout the design to establish a sense of place for the students within each school; the formation of a plaza, internal courts and commons to promote social interaction; and internal “streets,” student pathways, to promote identity, community and security.

Design solutions

The design solution for the site maximizes the identity of each school block by creating a community of discrete units. The interwoven configuration between built form and open spaces emerges to make multiple uses of the site. In addition, open pathways intertwine to connect the buildings and open up the spaces, in turn creating a permeable, accessible campus.

Each school block is composed of four elements: the nucleus created by the individual block’s central staircase; the common space on each level which serves as an identity marker; the “formal” project-based classrooms; and the open corridor system. Activity within these commons and open corridors is visible from a variety of levels. At the junction between each of these academic branches is a node for shared activity, reinforcing the school’s connectivity and community as well as the relationships between students of different ages.

In order to support the notion of a gateway, the design establishes a sense of arrival for the campus and for each school block, with grand staircases at each of the two main entrances and a central staircase for each block. The public plaza and shared programmatic elements have their own separate arrival experience, fostering a sense of security. Also central to the new school’s design is the concept of learning outside the classroom, with nodes of interaction along the student “streets,” or open corridor system, and open-air labs sheltered by patterned wood screens. These help blur the line between interior and exterior space. Natural shading and ventilation provided by these screens work seamlessly with the local climate, and further support the project’s goal of sustainability through simple, accessible design techniques.

Creative problem solving

The programmatic challenges and the site’s topography posed opportunities for the design team to create a unique educational experience that was ingrained in the community, culture, and place. The campus is structured around a central open “square,” a multi-functional field that expands the learning environment as an outside social central space of the campus.

The site’s irregular and steep topography demanded an S-shaped footprint on varying levels, a form of that helped support the programmatic goal of separate public and private spaces. Working around an existing rubber tree plantation on the site, the adapting form minimizes impact to the existing landscape and is situated in rather than on the site. As a prototype, the new school needed to be adaptable and able to be constructed in phases, so the design uses the classroom as a component and allows for modular growth over time, embodying the school’s case-by-case educational philosophy.

Architecture and community impact

Fusing cultural and geographic elements with smart planning and modern sustainable technologies and practices, the new Choice School reimagines the architecture of education in India, creating a prototype to help revitalize rural communities and empower future generations of children. The community is brought into the campus by shared program, which provides an academic hub that inspires and encourages families and children to take an active role in their education. Over the long term, the community at large benefits through access to a forward-thinking institute and indirectly from the improving academics for their children, who are preparing to become successful citizens.