Sanhe Kindergarten, OBRA Architects, Beijing, Korea and New York
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Sanhe Kindergarten

Beijing, CHINA
2014 Kim Swoo Geun Preview Prize
2014 AIA NYC Design Award

Located on the outskirts of Beijing, near the Capital International Airport, the Three Rivers Kindergarten is a project in the true tradition of a country with a population of 1.35 billion people: large.

The project is being designed as part of a residential development including more than 2 million square meters of housing (approximately 20 million square feet) with all apartments in high-rise towers designed by CADRG, the largest architectural firm in China.

The Kindergarten building will occupy a corner site facing a wide thoroughfare to the South, and to the North it will border the field of towers of the housing project. It has 5,550 m2 with 18 classrooms of 30 children each, altogether a total of 540 children. Besides the classrooms, the building includes two common spaces, the gymnasium and the music room, and also administrative and teachers’ areas, a large kitchen, and 15 teacher’s bedrooms.

Organized with all the classrooms facing South, the building is configured as a faceted arc in three sections that follows the path of the sun, since in China it is widely believed that a child who is not exposed to enough direct sunlight will grow up to develop intellectual retardations.

The organization in Triads, with three different wings, is also meant to breakdown the size of the building into three smaller areas. The organization in plan is harmonized with that of the section, which is designed in three floors. This double organization of Triads: West wing, Central wing and East wing in plan and first floor, second floor and third floor in section are meant to create a clear and memorable psychological map of the building for little children who are experiencing something much larger than the comfortable scales of the home for the first time in their lives. The three-ness of many things in life is an important lesson for young minds and is embodied in the building: small, medium, large; white, gray, black; beginning, middle, end; mother, father, son; husband, wife, mistress, etc. These are the perfect triangular geometries around which much of life seems to organize itself.

The building is accessed from the West under a large covered entry courtyard. All sides of the building align with the cardinal directions except for the South elevation which, following the planned road to the South, deviates from strict orthogonal by approximately 5o. The gradual differential between these two geometries is resolved in the hallway that gives access in every floor to all the classrooms. The hallway consequently diminishes in width as one enters deeper into the building, a funnel-like configuration that coincides with the gradually lighter traffic deeper into the building as the children in classrooms near the entrance go into their rooms.

The ground floor of the building is one meter below the level of the street to lower the footprint of its winter shadow and avoid affecting the residential buildings to the North. This creates the opportunity to define a bowl-like playground with steps where the children can sit, as if in an amphitheater embraced by the arc of the building. Consequently the entry courtyard is developed as a large and smooth ramp that uses gravity to move the children into the school. The South half of the playground is developed as a garden of fast-growing local Ailanthus altissima trees.

The classrooms are four meters high and organized like a New York City loft, with a sleeping mezzanine above, reached by an internal stair, that is used for the children to take naps without the need to change or rearrange furniture. All classrooms open outside to either the playground or terraces where classes would be conducted or children could simply play in days of good weather. All terraces are interconnected with stairs that allow children to join their friends, or go down to the playground, and also egress the high floors in the case of an emergency.

Organized in this way, the South façade, treated throughout with a rigid order of rectangular windows, dissolves gradually towards the upper floors into a more random arrangement of stairs, terraces, and open views of the landscape over the playground wall out to the street. The building becomes in this way a part of the playground, an object that can be climbed up on and conquered by the imagination of the children.

As opposed to the verticality of the South façade, which complements the horizontality of the avenue, the North façade has the horizontality of uninterrupted ribbon windows along the entire length of each of the corridors. While the speed of the strip of light coming in through the glass hurries the children back and forth to class, they can gaze outside to the mute anonymity of the vertical housing towers where they live with their parents.

All services in the building are distributed to all spaces by sort of an internal "aqueduct" running along the corridor to the South. Proposed as a thick 1 meter wide wall, this element extends alongside all classrooms in all the floors providing electricity, water, and air while through it sewage and vitiated air also exit the building. To avoid interfering with the "aqueduct", the reinforced concrete structure of the classrooms rests on the walls that separate one room from another which are structurally efficient because they do not have any openings.

To the North, the hallway's slabs are suspended from above by tension rods next to the facade. This allows for the uninterrupted ribbon windows that look out to the residential towers.

The exterior facades are Beijing blue brick with joints filled in mortar of matching color. The walls of the interior spaces are plaster and tile and the floors are rubber. Inside the classrooms all the surfaces, floor, walls and ceiling are stained cork panels. The building is heated and cooled by geothermal energy.