Taking in the sun and enjoying the wind are a form of playing. Pushing the envelope and trying out new things can be playing as well. In this context, the famous French industrial designer Matali Crasset (www.matalicrasset.com) renovated a French school into a perfect playground for children in September 2015. The École le Blé en Herbe, located in the quaint village of Trébedan in Brittany, means “wheat field school” in English. The key focus of the project was to visibly strengthen the social and cultural link of the educational space.
The entrance to le Blé en herbe, which acts like a tunnel, and connects the school to the adjacent village. ©Philippe Piron
The two classrooms of the school were rearranged and the classroom of the kindergarten was rebuilt. The classrooms now have windows that provide constant sunlight. The terraces connect the inside and outside of the buildings and serve as lounges for playing and taking in the sun and fresh air. Interestingly, children of different ages and grades are learning in the same space, while the variety of areas and the layout and furniture of a single classroom promote social interaction and the freedom to move. The renovation was based on the designer’s belief that a school is not an enclosed cocoon, and that moving does not mean kids are out of control but are being spontaneous and active.
Inside the classroom is an indoor terrace that can be easily transformed into an experimental educational space through the rearrangement of tables and chairs. Alternatively, you can easily create a space for reading or even a hut with boards and supports provided within the classroom. All the basic furnishings and equipment within the classrooms are multifunctional, eliciting spontaneous and proactive involvement in classes.
A classroom with a terrace that leads to the playground ©Philippe Piron
What stands out most at this renovated school, however, are the four tunnel-shaped wooden structures that bridge the school with the local community. The balloon-shaped “game” in the schoolyard serves as a playground, a “cycle” is for parking bicycles, and a “reading” is a communal library that is also open to village inhabitants. Sitting on the border between the school and the village, the “meeting” is a sort of platform for villagers to get together or even throw a party. All these structures are for socializing and community life. The school is communal, welcoming local residents into its space. This also lets children learn through their hearts that the school is open to the world.
DIY huts made of wood panels inside a classroom ©Philippe Piron
This, in fact, is in line with what Matali Crasset once said about how she applies the highest value to “the freedom of space” in her architecture for children. Inside the school, children can easily go outside to watch tadpoles swimming up and down the river while they play in the surrounding nature. Observing bugs and animals and carrying out experiments about the relationship between distance and speed and measuring quantities are not lessons all circumscribed within a school building. And that’s exactly what Matali Crasset intended to do when she dismantled the boundaries between spaces, furniture and product designs.
“ School designs should encourage children constantly
to move around and go outside. ”
Would you briefly explain the project?
“Transmission” has always been a major concern in my career as a designer. For this project, I questioned myself and what message I wanted to impart from an architectural point of view. It was a wonderful chance for me, but it also oppressed me in some ways with a huge sense of responsibility because I had to develop my own methodology, one which did not follow a standardized architectural approach. To be honest, I don’t want to explain the volume or superficial aspect of the project, like measurements, nor the colorful façade design, symbol or technical process. Instead, I’d like to talk about what it can be and what it will create in the future. In a nutshell, I’d like to talk about the essence of architecture, about how we can live together.
We were told you also designed the furniture. What was your prime concern for the kids?
The tables, which are made of white birch plywood, are adjustable to the height of each child and have holes in each corner. You can plant a pencil vase there, for example, to store loose items. At the same time, the holes also serve as a platform for vertical support to hang drawings or educational materials. The chairs are made of aluminum, so they’re light and easy to carry around. Additionally, the classrooms have panels and support structures called “universal boards” with which children can create their own spaces.
What for you is the ideal school?
School buildings should be simple in design and the walls should be as low as possible. They should not hinder the children from watching what is on both the inside and outside. You need to set free the conventional thoughts and functions of schools. For instance, traditional schools have heightened the windows under the belief that they can distract kids. On the contrary, I personally believe that children have the right to be informed about what is going on outside at every moment. Schools are not a huge cocoon to keep young people locked within. Children have an inherent right to move around and go outside to communicate with their surroundings. Like the pre-eminent American educational theorist John Dewey once emphasized, school should be based on experience and interaction, not on a conventional relationship of masters and pupils.