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The "modern" vision and early childhood architecture

After World War 1, there was increased interest in the well-being of young children as well as new research into the psychology of childhood development, which was expressed in a series of social projects. Yet the ECEC's that were included in these projects were not initially concerned with education but about social and medical care. There were no purpose-made kindergartens with any significant architectural qualities until the mid 1920's, before that, ECEC's were largely accommodated in ready made houses, makeshift sheds and shelters. After, a number of modernist architects were employed to produce buildings which would reflect the growing importance of children in society and the radical humanism at the heart of the kindergarten ideal.

The influence of European architectural movements brought two significant developments before World War 2: the 'machine aesthetic', which incorporated kindergartens into its new social forms, fundamental to this also was the new materials and innovatory technology. The second was the pragmatic need for units of accommodation (houses, schools, factories) produced efficiently, economically and in great numbers using prefabrication techniques. Two houses by Walter Gropius at the Wiessenhof Housing Exhibition in Stuttgart (1927) employed unit construction as a prototype for mass-produced housing. A number of following ECEC's followed these technological principles, taking the home as their social model.

Kensal House, designed by Maxwell Fry and Elizabeth Denby. Northwest London, 1937. Images taken from Kindergarten Architecture by Mark Dudek.

1937, Maxwell Fry and Elizabeth Denby designed Kensal House in Northwest London. Primarily a social housing scheme, it included an elegant semicircular nursery school in the shadow of the housing block. This followed European social patterns of maintaining closer contact between the home environment and the child's first school and shows influence of Walter Gropius.

Axonometric of the rooftop playground at Le Corbusier's Marseilles Unite Nursery School, 1947-52. This included a paddling pool, integrated climbing ramps and water-play features that created an exciting futuristic children's landscape. Image taken from Kindergarten Architecture by Mark Dudek.

Le Corbusier's rooftop play space, part of his Unite housing block in Marseilles, which asserts the importance of childcare in the newly socialised communities.

Perspective view of the Caryl Peabody Nursery School. Unbuilt project by Walter Gropius 1937. Image taken from Kindergarten Architecture by Mark Dudek.

Walter Gropius who had worked for the Froebel Society in Germany in 1926, emigrated to America and in 1937 designed an unbuilt nursery for the Caryl Peabody Trust. A significant project not just because of its architectural style, but because of its social programme. It established ground rules for designers and educationalists in the USA up to World War 2 and reflected key pedagogic preoccupations.

Nursery School designed by Hans Leuzinger, Zurich 1934. Image taken from Kindergarten Architecture by Mark Dudek.

In 1934, Hans Leuzinger designed a nursery on the outskirts of Zurich. It incorporated ergonomically designed furniture, with the timber structure of the building seemingly harmonizing with the wooden toys.

Plan of the expanding nursery school, by Erno Goldfinger and Mary Crowley, 1937. Image taken from Kindergarten Architecture by Mark Dudek.

In Britain, perhaps in optimistic anticipation of a more coherent strategy towards the state funding of child-care facilities, the Nursery School Association in London commissioned Erno Goldfinger and Mary Crowley to design a prototype. The elegant yet modest design was based on a gridded unit system and was named 'the expanding nursery school' and was intended to be mass produced. Its intentions reflected the enlightened thinking of the time in relation to preschool facilities, combining the open-air health values of the 19th century with a weightless, machine-made image of the future.

But most importantly, it held a vision of nursery schools for all.

Unfortunately, with the war, the design was never put into production, although the germs of the idea did re-emerge in the post-war years.


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