Auckland Park Preparatory School: STEAM Centre

WORDS Steve Smith INTERVIEW Gina Dionisio PHOTOS Sarah de Pina

This historical South African girls’ school recently unveiled a new space designed to embrace their students’ modern-day requirements.

Part retrofit and part contemporary addition to the school’s existing library and staffroom, the STEAM Centre was designed by Catherine de Souza and Guy Trangos, principals at Joburg architecture and design studio Meshworks. With the school’s need for a number of new facilities, Meshworks designed a series of spaces that blur the boundaries between disciplines and learning methods.

“A major focus of the centre’s design was creating various spaces for children’s diverse needs,” says Guy. “Children learn differently – some by making, some by reading, some by performing,” adds Catherine. “Some prefer to sit alone in a quiet pod, while others enjoy the creative confusion of a group meeting around a desk. Through the various areas and across the levels of the STEAM Centre, a bold materials palette – of geometric vinyl shapes, warm carpets, glossy painted steelwork, plywood bookshelves and colourful furniture – creates an enriching, vibrant space for students to read and research in.”

We chatted to Catherine to find out more about the exciting project:

How did you approach the integration of traditional architecture with modern design elements in the STEAM Centre?

The APPS campus consists largely of domestically-scaled textured bagged brickwork buildings, so we adopted that language on the envelope of the new STEAM Centre, keeping openings restrained but giving a strong hint of something contemporary and different about this building. So the Centre fits into the existing ‘village’ typology of the school but breaks the scale as a form of landmark or beacon – the school’s symbol is a lighthouse and in some ways, the building might be seen as a contemporary lighthouse.

What considerations were made to ensure the various spaces cater to the diverse learning styles and preferences of the students?

We allowed for a mix of learning spaces, ranging from the formality of the computer lab to the informality of reading nooks for individuals or small groups. Pupils can collaborate or work individually at different desks and there are higher and lower ones for different ages. The mini-auditorium provides a different sensory experience, cocooned away from the bright light of most of the other spaces. In the maker space, the tables can be moved aside, regrouped, etc, to allow for different activities with different spatial needs – such as robotics where the entire floor can be used as a surface for programming. 

Can you elaborate on the decision-making process behind the materials palette used throughout the Centre, and how it contributes to the learning environment?

The materials were chosen with sustainability, budget and aesthetics in mind. The linoleum flooring is made from natural materials; the plywood fittings are an affordable local natural product; the colour palette was dictated by the principle that strong, bold colours were important to express the dynamism of the learning that would take place here – and we specifically steered clear of conventionally pale and pretty hues – this is a space for empowering girls! The materials palette is simple and unpretentious but made to work to its maximum to manifest quite a complex design.

Could you explain the rationale behind incorporating a spiral slide as part of the Centre’s design, and how it enhances the student experience?

The spiral slide was an additional bit of irresistible fun which spoke to the idea of a library as a jungle gym, and learning as play. It was also another means of connecting volumes and diversifying the journey through them.

What strategies were employed to ensure seamless connectivity between different areas such as the computer lab, auditorium, maker space, and library within the Centre?

An easy flow between spaces was essential pragmatically, but also conceptually to echo the interdependence of the programmes housed within the Centre. We ensured that visual permeability was possible between the different learning spaces by using large aluminium and glass windows or sliding doors as classroom walls. These function to entice but also to create a sense of connection between different groups of students and different activities. Within the library core, in particular, there is a constant interplay of multiple lines of sight which keeps the occupants engaged and surprised.

How did you address sustainability and environmental considerations in the design and construction of the STEAM Centre?

To a large degree, the design was an adaptive re-use, so the footprint of the Centre was largely unchanged from that of its predecessor, though its volumes were significantly expanded and manipulated. Orientation and shading of openings were very carefully considered to exploit natural light and cross ventilation while avoiding overheating. The Centre is off-grid with solar panels tucked behind the parapet walls of the library core and a battery hub in the base, and LED lights were spec’d throughout. As mentioned, the linoleum flooring used almost throughout the Centre is a wonderfully green product.

Can you discuss the role of natural elements and outdoor views in enhancing the learning atmosphere within the Centre, particularly on the top level?

The STEAM Centre sits in the heart of APPS and it was essential to tie it back to the beautiful campus, so we took several opportunities to connect the building with its context visually and to provide glimpses of other parts of the school. On the uppermost level of the library, when not peeking down into interesting parts of the school, one really feels part of the tree canopy. At the same time, on the ground floor, the section is worked in order to allow sight lines to extend through the whole building and out across the playing fields below. The school’s courtyard typology was also embraced in a remodelled courtyard to the west, and we made sure that the new build was embraced by planting and extending the lovely APPS gardens.

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