WORDS Graham Wood PHOTOS Elsa Young and David Southwood
Two new spaces at King David School in Linksfield by architect Asher Marcus, founder and lead architect of Hubo Studio, embrace an educational philosophy that sees architecture as an active element in the learning process.
If you’re a regular VISI reader, you may recognise the work of Asher Marcus and his Hubo Studio crew from the imaginative, colourful interiors they did for the Tshepo Jeans store in Hyde Park and the King David School library in Sandton. The two new spaces on these pages, also for a King David School – The Studios design studio and robotics centre, and The Yards art and drama centre – are all about a progressive educational philosophy that respects and empowers learners, awakening curiosity and sustaining the senses.
The Studios is a revamp of two existing buildings and the space between them: two floors of a fairly typical two-storey school block (formerly a hostel), and then behind it, a space that used to be a computer room and library. The centre not only had to transform the existing buildings, but also foster creativity, collaboration and problem-solving, as the spaces relate to the study of everything from design to robotics. What Asher and his team created was a kind of doll’s house, by opening up large windows on the facade to provide a glimpse of what is happening inside. He describes it as “little pockets of space, where you can start to see kids studying and learning and working”.
The idea was to draw people in, in the way that people are enticed into a coffee shop when they look through the window and sense the buzz inside. The arches and curves of the windows express a total transformation of the interior, where the regular grid of the school block is barely recognisable. Inside, curves, circles, lozenges and arches were ingeniously carved out to create nooks, pockets and a myriad other possibilities, from seating to desks and amphitheatres to breakaway areas, where kids can gather, work, have conversations and figure out how to use the spaces themselves.
While at a glance the transformation looks dazzling, the materials are simple and robust: linoleum flooring, plywood surfaces, steel staircases. Pops of sherbety colour bring it all to life – bright enough to be energising, yet gentle enough on the eye to be soothing and enhance concentration.
If The Studios is akin to an urban design, The Yards – essentially an art and drama centre – has an almost rural character. The site for the centre was a disused area of the campus with nothing on it but an old house and some lovely established trees. The art centre was a chance to bring this corner of the campus to life, and Asher and his team saw it as an opportunity to make the most of the presence of Linksfield Ridge in the background, engaging nature in its role as “third teacher”.
Instead of designing an art centre as a building, Asher and his team decided to deconstruct the brief and create more of a little village, with an emphasis on the garden and the landscape. “We thought we should try to break the buildings apart and play with in-between spaces,” he says. So the design has become as much about the courtyards and the landscaping between the buildings as it is about the “classrooms” themselves.
The sloped site was terraced, and the almost fragmented-looking buildings, set at angles, now open up onto a central amphitheatre carved into the landscape (which also doubles as a sculpture garden). The double-volume studio classrooms appear to be sunken into landscape, woven together with vertical and horizontal links like an embedded Rubik’s Cube. Everywhere, doors slide away seamlessly into pockets in walls, and classrooms can be transformed into auditoriums in a few simple moves.
The courtyards, bridges and spaces between classrooms become learning spaces in their own right, while the gardens become performance spaces, as well as seating and spill-out areas. The rocks and naturalistic planting of landscaping appear as an extension of the ridge, so that its formidable natural presence seems to flow between the buildings and into The Yards, bringing a sense of tranquillity and calm. As Asher explains, he’s tried not to design “traditional buildings”, but instead to create a cluster that facilitates interaction, fosters a creative community and supports a dynamic approach to learning, with a sense of light, the presence of nature, and possibility.