HGA uses simple geometries to achieve a child-centered design

HGA uses simple geometries to achieve a child-centered design


Any building should be designed with its primary occupants in mind. So for a school, this means centering students and tailoring interventions to a variety of ages, abilities, and learning styles. HGA Architects has achieved this level of specificity and mixed it with spontaneity and sustainability at The Blake School’s Early Learning Center in Minneapolis. Designers chose simple geometries, basic colors, and child-height windows, among many other details, through a design process that directly engaged student input. This is fitting, since the school follows the Italian Reggio Emilia philosophy, under which childhood education operates similarly to a democracy or the workings of a city.

“This was my first time engaging with this type of teaching philosophy. It was striking how aligned it was with our own ideas, ideals, and values about the city—and about architecture’s role in it,” HGA design principal Nat Madson told AN.

The school’s exterior is defined by a low profile with rhythmic windows. (© Kendall McCaugherty)

One principle of the Reggio Emilia approach is to organize learning spaces around a central square. In this integral space, HGA opted to expose the structural system of choice—a mass-timber one made entirely of southern pine beams and columns. Massing for the project was largely informed by Froebel toys, popularized in Germany in the 19th century. The simple geometries of these wooden play objects were repeated throughout the Early Learning Center: They appear on the rounded balconies, on the stairway that doubles as seating, and on the light boxes installed on the rooftop.

kids playing outside brick building with yellow staicase
A dynamic brick facade plays with the brick’s form to create patterns and visual interest, juxtaposed with color and generous windows for sunlight and visual connection. (© Kendall McCaugherty)

The window orientation of the roof’s volumetric skylights allows daylight to spill into the central common area at various times of day. One was designed with a triangular form, while the two others have a more cylindrical shape.

To integrate the new addition with existing facilities, located just up the hill, HGA opted for brick. The brickwork surrounding each window and entrance was outlined with a coating of white paint, and to add texture, bricks extrude from the flatness of several facades. In keeping with the playful mood, some stretchers were painted blue, green, or yellow. These simple colorways correspond to the structuring and layout of the school, wherein each grade has its own theme in line with the landscape: field for preschool, forest for kindergarten, and treetop for first grade.

kid juggling in front of wall
Color and geometry activate learning and playful behavior. (© Kendall McCaugherty)

At each level the colors enliven walls, partitions, balconies, and staircases as decorative elements that double as means of wayfinding and placemaking. All classrooms open to the outdoors, with the field-level opening directly onto a play area, while the upper floors include terraces. 

aerial view looking down into play space
Double-height spaces optimize access to natural light. (© Kendall McCaugherty)

There are three classrooms for each grade level. Preschool teachers wanted their classrooms to open up to one another while still having the ability to “close down the rooms” if needed. HGA senior interior designer Michelle Hammer explained that this desire for separation was achieved by installing sliding panels between the classrooms.

Additionally, each classroom was outfitted with “nook conditions.” These areas are partitioned with translucent walls that create “more intimate” versus “more introverted” spaces, depending on need, Hammer continued. Programming was further defined via bold floor markings and furniture placement—in one classroom a miniature kitchen set closes off a play area, while outside a fence encircles a recreation space.

kids in wooden kitchen
Custom plywood details make interiors feel seamless and connected to work. (© Kendall McCaugherty)

One of the many unique details visitors to The Blake School will notice are the entry door handles. They were fashioned by older students in the woodshop at the upper school. These represent just one way HGA’s building design is informed by, as well as informing, the curriculum and learning of its youngest denizens.

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