The brief that we were given for the Montessori School of Glyfada was, at first, deceptively simple: a home from home, that was to be environmentally friendly and for children from the age of 5 months to 6 years old.
It was to be a ground floor building housing a Montessori Crèche (The Nest and The Infant Community), two Montessori Nursery schools, (The Children’s Houses), a Centre for After School Activities for older children and a large space for Adult Education. We were also requested to provide classrooms with direct access to the outdoors, since contact with the natural world is an important aspect of Montessori education.
“Children should not need to adapt to their surrounding environment; on the contrary, it is us who should adapt the surrounding environment to the children!”Dr. Maria Montessori
It took us all a while to get into this mindset: we were not designing a building for adults, but a Montessori environment that had to meet the needs of very young children. Our client desired a unique building that would reflect the child centred approach which is at the heart of the Montessori method. The Adult, who is there to facilitate and support the child, does so from the periphery. This therefore necessitated that we look at the learning environment from a very different perspective.
A Montessori Environment for this age group of children needed to convey the warmth, the welcome and the atmosphere of a home. It had to be small enough to accommodate little children, but large enough to accommodate their growing personalities.
We came to understand that a Montessori Environment is not just a classroom situated in a building, but it is an entire building which has to accommodate the needs of infants who will be slithering and crawling, the needs of young children who will be walking and running and of course the needs of all the adults who will be working there. It needed to contain all that a home contains and all these areas – cloakroom, kitchen, bathroom, library, terrace, garden and vegetable patch – had to be above all safe and accessible to children. Most importantly and this was the greatest challenge we met, they also had to facilitate the child’s independent activity.
From the moment the children arrive in the morning until they leave in the afternoon they are in an environment designed so that they may act for themselves and by themselves. Facilitating the child’s independent activity is one of the most important prerequisites of a Montessori environment. This had to be taken into account in every aspect of the building we were designing so that children could at all instances act for themselves by themselves. We had to start looking at the world, through the eyes of a child. We had never thought of placing toilets just 17cms from the floor, or even a doorbell at the height of the child!
As architects we had to re-educate ourselves. We visited and observed an existing Montessori school, we watched DVD’s of Montessori schools in other countries, we studied the dimensions, heights and proportions of the Montessori materials at the AMI Montessori Training Centre in Athens, and we spoke to Montessori trainers and teachers.
The importance given to the outdoors in Montessori education meant that the children needed to have an outdoor area offering possibilities for movement and exploration as well as for working and observing nature in its more natural state. A terrace was therefore created for each classroom providing children with an area to which they could have easy access, and at the same time be safe and visible from their classroom.
This terrace serves as a transition between the indoors and the larger garden, which offers the children so many more sensory motor experiences. Thought was given to the planting of the larger garden, so that children could visually experience the change of seasons, so that they could harvest fruit, gather herbs and aromatic plants, tend their vegetable patch and work in their greenhouses. One of the challenges with the outdoors was to design little gardens for those children who were not yet walking or running, but were still either slithering, crawling or just toddling!
The building is south facing and on a slope. Advantage was therefore taken of the sloping site by organizing The Nest, The Infant Community, the two Children’s Houses and all the administrative facilities on the upper level and the Centre for After School Activities for the older children and the large space for Adult Education on the lower level. Both levels overlook the garden.
The central axis of the building runs along a wide corridor, which separates the classrooms on one side from the administrative centres on the other. The classrooms look out and open onto the garden whereas the administration looks out onto the street. An atrium was placed in the entrance of the building so as to bring the outdoors into the building, providing the administrative rooms with access to the natural world as well.
All the classrooms function as independent units, each with its own entrance, cloakroom, kitchen and bathroom, designed for the age group it serves. The classrooms are large, yet homely, with picture windows so that contact with the natural world is constantly maintained.
At the heart of the building lies the main kitchen, which also has direct access to the garden. Positioned centrally between the two Children’s Houses, it means that the 3 – 6 year olds can participate in all the food preparations and culinary activities that take place either in the kitchen or in the small paved area just outside.
The area designated for After School Activities and Adult Education, is situated on the lower level. These too have their own facilities and independent entrances, so that all areas may function, without having to intrude on one another’s space, even though they are all interconnected.
In choosing the building materials we attached particular importance to indigenous and ecological products, with the children’s safety foremost in our minds. The shell of the building is covered with high specification, fire-resistant insulation panels. The entire building has underfloor heating. The ventilation system works with heat recovery and the air conditioning, underfloor heating and hot water are heated electrically with assistance from solar panels.
It has been a privilege and pleasure working on this project. For CFCOMPANY it has been a first – and an experience we shall never forget. Apart from wishing that we could go back in time and begin our education once again it has given us the opportunity to remember / realise that children have very specific needs, since the work they have to do is very different from the work of adults.
Our involvement in this project has led us to understand the critical importance of these first years of life. Children’s play and work creates the Man of tomorrow. Our work, as architects, has been to provide an environment which will allow these little people to do the important work they have to do in order to grow up.
We believe CFCOMPANY, in collaboration with Ekpaideftiki Protovoulia, has provided the best possible conditions to facilitate the work of the Child. We have provided what Dr. Montessori might call “a developmental environment”. It is the most and the least that we adults can do. Our wish is for more schools to be built focusing on the developmental needs of all children of all ages. This is our only hope for a better future!