a four-part observation and design workshop
at Rimon School, Pardes Hana, Israel, November / December 2015
The Rimon Waldorf School was founded 8 years ago. After having been located in a different site for the first five years of its existence, the school was offered part of an agricultural school as its new premises. After the first three years of settling into the new location, the college of teachers felt that the time had come to engage in a more conscious effort of taking hold of the school environment and invited me to help them with this venture. I suggested a series of four ‘Consensus Design’ (1) workshops, which took place on four afternoons during November / December 2015. They were attended by a group of some 20 people, including most of the teachers, technical and maintenance staff and some engaged parents.
|Rimon School - entrance gate|
Aims of the workshops:
At the outset of the workshop I outlined the following aims:
- looking afresh at the familiar school environment
- practicing collective observation skills, sharing, vision-making and creating together
- penetrating the school environment with more consciousness and enhancing the aesthetic feeling of the place
- looking at the whole campus as a totality in order to understand the potential of the site for future development
- creating a master plan so that future initiatives can make their contributions in harmony with a commonly agreed overall picture
- identify areas which need immediate attention and suggest possible solutions
- by embarking on this collective venture of shaping the outer form of the educational initiative - touching upon the question of the inner identity - the ‘who are we?’ - of the initiative
Doing this delicate process together requires from each participant an effort to assume a particular working attitude. The main features of this attitude are:
- openness to look at the familiar environment in a unbiased fashion - as it were looking with the eyes of a complete stranger
- listening to the contributions of other participants with openness and without judgement, based on the understanding that the voice of each and every person is important
- patience in letting our observations settle in, until a more complete picture arises; avoiding premature judgements and conclusions
First practice: ‘First Impression and Gestural Sketch’
Participants were invited to join - as ‘casual first time visitors’ - a guided walk, leading from the outer perimeter of the school, through the entrance gate and following the approach road, into the school yard, finally arriving at the main (lower class) building. On the walk participants were asked to pay close attention to whatever sights meet the eye on the way.
After returning to the classroom, where the plenum sessions were housed, participants was asked to ‘summarise’ the impressions and experiences from the walk in a quick ‘gestural sketch’, which could be a free line, a colour gesture or a summary representation of a characteristic image.
These sketches provided a kind of patchwork of images betraying the complexity of the given situation. This also came to expression in a short verbal sharing of first impressions.
Second practice: creating an ‘inventory map’
The objective of this practice was to make an in-depth survey of the sense-perceptible inventory of the school, including visual features like borders, topography, buildings, paths, vegetation, play-equipment, agricultural and other structures, light and shade, important vistas as well as other striking sense impressions like smells and sounds. For this purpose the site was divided into five segments which were to be studied by five groups of participants. All the observations were to be entered into a outline map (not necessarily on scale).
The results of this survey were shared in the plenum and a summary map of the whole site, containing the most important features and their spatial relationship, was created on the blackboard.
As part of this summary participants also shared their observations of significant stations on the site. This included recurring visual forms like fences and walls, border situations and transitions and situations where a confusion of direction or spatial relationship was experienced.
|Rimon School site - blackboard drawing based on participants' observation|
First practice: ‘Snapshot Motifs’;
As a means of summarising their first impressions, participants were asked to verbally describe a ‘snapshot’ image, which for them represented a characteristic ‘motif’ of the school environment - something which they perhaps noticed for the first time, or which simply ‘got stuck’ in their mind. I simultaneously translated these verbal images into a visual form on the blackboard:
Second practice: ‘Activity Maps’
As a preparation for this practice participants had been asked at the end of the previous session to observe how the skeletal spatial map we had created becomes filled with life, movement and activity in the course of the week. These observations included:
- axes of movement (indoors/outdoors) of children/adults
- bottlenecks / congestion
- rest areas and meeting places
- areas of free play
- areas of ball games
- outdoor teaching areas, including agriculture
Participants again split up into different groups - according to the designated areas. The various activities / movements were included as coloured lines or as symbols (according to an agreed code) into photocopies of the site map.
|'activity map' of school site|
Observation and sharing:
As a result of this practice a number of problematic issues were identified, including activities which are lacking a designated space or activities which are taking place in unsuitable spaces.
Third Practice: ‘Mood Maps’:
In this practice we proceeded to giving expression to individual soul responses to different part of the site. I introduced the use of colour as a means of characterising experienceable qualities like ‘open/closed’, ‘active/passive’, ‘warm/cold’.
Participants would work in couples and create a ‘mood map’ of a chosen area, using colours to represent the different ‘mood’ or ‘atmosphere’ of a specific area and how this changes from place to place. At the same time colours could be given form in order to characterise the gesture of a place: for instance a ‘protective’ or ‘focussing’ gesture.
Here are some of participants’ ‘mood maps’:
Observation and evaluation of the results:
Results of this practice were quite individual and different from each other. Nevertheless some common features could be identified, especially concerning areas which are experienced as problematic or lacking definition. These included the entrance area
Fourth Practice: ‘Defining Potential and Shortcomings'
As a conclusion of this session and a summary of the whole observation process the attempt was made to highlight, on the one side, qualities which are considered assets or which are seen as constituting a valuable potential of the site; and on the other side to identify shortcomings or aspects which are experienced as compromising the realisation of the potential or jeopardising a harmonious functioning of the school organism.
|potential and shortcomings|
potential: (selection) shortcomings:
nice feeling in classrooms no relation between inside and outside
lots of open spaces feeling of emptiness
feeling of wild, untamed area lack of order, definition and relationship
pleasant walk through eucalyptus avenue entrance to school yard not inviting
In this session the transition was made from the exploration of the given state of the site to make the first steps towards changing / modifying / improving the site in a guided design process. As a first step we tried to engender and identify a shared will impulse for change.
First practice: ‘Identifying individual will impulses’:
Each person in the circle was asked to share his/her will for change by identifying one most important aspect or detail that he/she wishes to change and why this is seen as important in the pedagogical context.
All these will impulses were written on the blackboard. After considering these individual impulses it transpired that they can be ordered into four different categories:
- changes concerning the overall future vision of the school as a total organism
- changes concerning the flow of movement, in particular touching upon the way into the school
- changes concerning the organisation of space, the creation of more protection, shelter, of areas of quietness and the articulation of larger spaces into smaller units
- changes concerning the design and definition of existing and new areas of (outdoor) activity
These categories were visually highlighted with different colours on the blackboard.
This gave rise of the creation of four groups which, in the following practice, would take on these four aspects of the design process.
|list of individual will impulses for change - blackboard drawing|
Second practice: ‘Dreaming the future’
Participants split up into four groups, each of which was given a mandate to begin ‘dreaming’ the future:
- vision - creating a number of options for future use of the whole site
- movement - reconsidering the movement of people into the site
- spatial organisation - creating sheltered and varied outdoor spaces
- activity - locating and designing outdoor activity spaces and their relationship
As a first step of the design process, groups would create ‘modified mood maps’, which indicate the change of mood and the re/definition of spatial gestures. This would be achieved primarily through the use of colour, while any definition of concrete forms should be avoided at this stage.
Sharing and reflection:
The third session concluded with a sharing of the four groups’ ‘dreams’. Each group chose a representative who presented the maps as well as the group’s suggestions for change.
Here are some of the visual representations of the working groups:
|map of 'movement' working group|
|map of 'spatial organisation' group|
The fourth and final session started with a summary of the whole process, which proceeded in an arch-like fashion, rising from the survey of sense-perceptible facts on the ground to identifying both the potential and the impeding factors of the site. This gave rise to a formulation of the individual/collective will for change which then gradually descended towards embodiment on the ground:
First practice - ‘Consolidating Collective Will’:
In order to remind ourselves of the individual will impulses which were shared in the circle and in order to consolidate this into a share, collective will, participants were asked to recollect and repeat one of the will impulses and how this has been reflected in the initial ‘dreamt’ suggestions presented by the four working groups.
Second practice - ‘Giving Shape to Dreams’:
Taking further the initial ‘dream-like’ suggestions for change, participants split up into three groups in order to consolidate the two-dimensional proposals by giving them three-dimensional form in relationship to the given three-dimensional space. Axel had prepared two scale-models of different parts of the campus, which provided two of the groups with a basis for modelling onto, using a variety of materials like plasticine, wooden sticks, coloured sand, coloured steel wool, in order to suggest three-dimensional structures, paths, trees and vegetation. The first of the two groups took upon itself to redesign the whole entrance area to the main campus, while the second dealt with the outdoor areas of the lower and medium classes.
The third group was given the task to consolidate a number of alternative proposals for an extended use of the whole campus, which could accommodate both parallel classes for the lower school, kindergarten and/or high school classes.
Eventually the three groups presented their collective creations. After each presentation the other participants were asked to give their positive feedback by pointing out what they appreciated in the group’s creation.
Summary and reflection
The workshop project concluded with a reflective summary session, in which participants were invited to share experiences and comment on the workshop process and results. Here are some of their comments:
- “this was the first time that I really became aware of the school buildings and the school environment.”
- “it was amazing, how much I could identify with the perceptions and proposals of other members of staff, even if, at first sight, they seemed to be different from mine.”
- “we have had many workshops with all kind of learned people who have shared their interesting knowledge with us. But we have not have had anything like this workshop, where you did not tell us anything of what you think about our school environment. Instead, you made us discover our school and develop and share our own ideas about how we would like to improve the physical appearance of our educational institution.”
(1) ‘Consensus Design’ was developed by ecological architect Christopher Day as a socially inclusive design process on the basis of Goethean phenomenology. Christopher Day had become acquainted with Goethe’s approach while working with Dr. Margaret Colquhoun and myself on the architectural design of the Pishwanton Wood Project in East Lothian, Scotland.
Day, Christopher (2003): Consensus Design - socially inclusive process, Architectural Press, Oxford.