Learning Among Neighbours: Scharoun School in Marl
Children can learn and concentrate best in school when they are offered differentiated spaces with a fine gradation between intimacy and openness. While maintaining contact with their fellow classmates is important, younger students in particular should be protected from distractions by older students.
These are basic ideas behind the trend towards classroom clusters and “learning houses” in contemporary school building design. But these ideas are hardly new, as a visit to the Scharoun School in Marl proves. Hans Scharoun designed the school building around the same time as the Berlin Philharmonic, in the early 1960s. The building complex was completed shortly before his death in 1971.
Marl is located in the northern Ruhr area, which was industrialized relatively late, and counts as one of the classic planned cities of post-war Germany. The social democratic mayor, Rudolf Heiland, particularly looked to high-profile architecture as a means of establishing an identity for his city. The elementary school for grades 1 to 9 was planned with 18 classrooms grouped in four wings around the central entrance hall and the auditorium. The main entrance and classrooms face the access road to the northwest, while the classrooms face east and south towards the open countryside, where a stream flows past the property boundary.
In the aftermath of Nazi indoctrination, Scharoun advocated that children and young people be taught independent thinking and democracy. This was reflected in the official motto of North Rhine-Westphalia’s school construction policy in the 1960s: “Bauen vom Kinde aus” (“Child-centred school building”). This aim could be perfectly combined with the classic modern ideals of light, air and sun as well as the less rigid arrangement of the buildings. But Scharoun did not take a strictly rationalistic approach to the project. As a supporter of Hugo Haring, he was a proponent of organic building, which sought to find a “performative form” appropriate to each individual building task. “Scharoun gradually discovered his designs. He looked for it. He called this ‘form finding’,” related Scharoun’s former employee, Michael Hellgardt.
The inner arrangement of the school building, which officially bears Scharoun’s name since 2008, is reminiscent of a small town. Each class has a “class apartment” that includes a polygonal classroom, a common room, a cloakroom, toilets and an open-air study area. Four of these apartments are grouped around a recreation hall for around 120 students, and together form a “neighbourhood”. The school comprises five such neighbourhoods. The two ninth grade classes have a special status: instead of a recreation hall, they have a small auditorium, the so-called “Parliament”. Today, this is one of the school’s most frequently used spaces.
The school also offers plenty of room for special uses. There are spacious workshops, classrooms and an auditorium with terraced rows of seats, which is sometimes referred to as the “little brother” of the Berlin Philharmonic Hall.
Scharoun used advanced, though not fully developed, methods for the school’s construction. Especially the flat roof waterproofing systems of the post-war years were notoriously short-lived. For 30 years, the building envelope had leaks everywhere, causing irreparable damage to the ceilings and floors. In 2003, the city of Marl had the Munster-based architectural office of Pfeiffer Ellermann Preckel produce a restoration report, and in 2008 they were commissioned to carry out an authentic and energy-efficient restoration of the listed building. The roofs and the glazed post-and-beam facades were almost entirely replaced. The architects were committed to use materials that were true to the original, wherever possible. This also led to unusual solutions: today, for example, the floors are again covered in PVC flooring, and the classrooms have decentralized ventilation systems. The original devices that Scharoun had installed never really worked and were later replaced by window ventilation. Four decades later, however, the technology has come of age.
Today, the premises of the Scharoun School are shared by the Marl Music School and a full-day primary school. North Rhine-Westphalia’s urban planning initiative, “StadtBauKultur”, together with the Technical University of Dortmund, have also recognized the groundbreaking importance of the architecture here. In 2018, they presented the Scharoun School with an award within the framework of their “Big Beautiful Buildings” project.