A kindergarten is the first public space that children encounter outside of their homes. Scale, flexibility, and spatial atmosphere play an important role to shape children's emotional and cognitive development. They also present challenging tasks for the architecture to inspire children to explore and learn while feeling safe and comfortable. During the initial research, the design team found that informal spaces such as corridors in front of the activity rooms often become an important place for children to inhabit, interact and play.
In designing the Vanke Experimental Kindergarten, the precarious balancing of program, space and context were of the primary concerns. Located in a long and narrow triangular site with the elevated Middle Ring Road and a river to the south, high-density high-rise residential buildings to the north, a vehicular bridge to the east, and to the west, a regional circuit room to be housed on site. To create a full-time public kindergarten of 15 classes that matches the strict requirement of the education bureau while responding to the various constrains of the context, the unique site becomes a particular challenge. The architect is not only expected to fulfill the project brief, area requirements, planning and safety regulations, but also to create a new campus that is appropriately designed for teaching and management while encouraging children's exploratory psyche and fulfilling parents' expectations.
At the beginning, the team had tried various schemes, from compact form, to cluster of volumes, and courtyard typology. While reviewing the design, Mr. Liu asked a crucial question: “What is the best strategy for this very site?” Eventually, it went back to solving the essential problem of tackling with the site itself and the surroundings. The final scheme is a serially connected four volumes of space, each loaded with different programmatic spaces and connected by exterior platforms with views towards outside landscape. The curve-roof three-storey volume vaguely resembles the universally famous cartoon character Thomas train, passing through the site and carrying children's imagination into the future.
The triangular site is wider to the west and narrower to the east. The playground is set on the east side which faces the noisy intersection and acts as a transition between the street and kindergarten. The building volume accommodates the linear layout of the site, and adopts a central corridor for a more compact layout. The rooms are distributed on both north and south sides, and in the middle there are three triangular atriums gradually expanding from west to east. The activity rooms, bedrooms and offices are located in the south side with better sunlight and views. Other supporting functional spaces, including the foyer, special activity rooms, stairways, toilets, etc., are arranged on the north side adjacent to the main road. The north and south volumes are divided into four sections, and each section makes a little different twist to respond to the urban and landscape contexts.
The north elevation facing the street respects the urban context while maintaining a sense of playfulness. The external fence wall recedes back at multiple locations from the site boundary and leaves residual spaces for passer-bys as well as parents waiting for picking up, while sharing the green spaces with the city. The fence wall is not only designed as safety measure but also as a buffer between building and street, creating pleasurable views for pedestrians and forming a positively continuous interface.
For the higher view of the architecture, the stairwells which are frequently used by everyone as a utility space but easily neglected as a design feature, are articulated here as a distinct visual form. The curving wall of the multifunctional hall terminates the north elevation and acts as a transition to the outdoor playground. In the coherence of heights and materials, the north side interface regulates the rhythm of the street and avoids the tension caused by the continuous volume in the narrow space. With the high-rise residential buildings at the front, the kindergarten creates a friendly scale for the pedestrians and children alike, extending the approachable interface and appropriate scale of the interior space onto the street.
The design places one office cluster and three teaching clusters on the south side towards the river. And despite the narrow site, a linear green space is set aside between the building and the fence wall. The volume on the east turns an angle to get the best natural sunlight and the pleasant view, forming a half closed triangular space connected to the playground with a dynamic outdoor staircase in between, connecting all three floors with the outdoor playground. The south side of the volumes are connected by outdoor corridors and platforms, allowing the surrounding landscape to penetrate into the buildings. Part of the ground floor and of the second floor and third floor were designed as covered outdoor play spaces.
Three triangular atriums are formed in the middle and the sizes gradually increase from the west to the east. Respectively, the small triangle for the office zone, the two middle for the activities zones and the large outdoor activities place in a row become the core spaces in this project. The atrium presented the children with a uniquely shaped and lit gathering spaces. The triangular skylights are set above the atriums. Sunlight penetrates through the brightly-colored openings and touches the ground floor. Walking through the corridor with changing widths, the gradual interplay of light and darkness, the faint glimpses of the exterior views and the soft light filtered by the translucent glass block wall, a unique spatial atmosphere is created. In addition to the atriums, the huge circular skylights are also presented in the multi-function hall as well as all of the activity rooms on the top floor, with natural light raining down the walls and floors.
In order to create playful interiors, various sizes and types of openings are created. The window modules relate to the dimension of both grown-ups and kids. The combination of different openings' bring diverse observation experience for children and adults alike. By applying a few simple material combination, the design of the kindergarten reaches a humanistic, modesty and modern ambiance and conveys the various programs in a clear manner. Interplay of materials presents a diverse and vivid impression: the sense of Chinese ink painting on the concrete wall, the dim light from the translucent glass blocks, the oxidized effect from the titanium zinc panels, the tactile impression from the stone washed slabs. Along with the indoor color felt, wooden floors and wood veneer panels, graphic patterns for the playground, a dynamic learning environment is created to encourage creativity from the children.