A Holistic Strategy for a Community Learning Environment

by Stanley Collyer

Winning entry by CEBRA (image © CEBRA, courtesy Strelka)

Can it be that pedagogues from all over the world will soon be traveling to the far reaches of Siberia to examine the workings of a school, which not only will be catering to average students, but also feature a live-in community offering an optimal educational environment for disadvantaged children. A competition for this ‘model’ school occurred in 2015, and the winning entry came from a team led by the Danish firm, CEBRA.


According to the organizers, the main focus of the program was…the inclusion of “three teaching corpuses, a cultural and leisure centre, sports hall, medical and practical study zones, and a residential complex. The educational institution will be built in the city of Irkutsk on a 20.9 hectare site beside the River Angara, which flows from Lake Baikal. Besides regular pupils attending classes, Irkutsk Region children deprived of parental care and those with special needs will live and study in family groups on the site.” Thus, this is not your typical bricks and mortar institution of learning for children; It foresees expanded community involvement in a holistic learning environment.


The idea for this type of school project originated with Russian journalist and television producer, Tina Kandelaki. It was embraced by the community and supported by KB Strelka, a consulting subdivision of the Strelka Institute for Media, Architecture and Design, since 2013 an independent company. As this was envisioned as an innovative educational program, it was only logical that the organizers turned to a competition format to find the right formula for the design of the complex. For the competitors, “cluster,” was held out as the intended functional idea to be accomplished by the program. And the winner’s design best illustrated this, featuring the main buildings under a platform surrounding a courtyard.


This was an invited competition, with the organizers explicitly inviting “design bureaus and consortiums of companies comprising specialists in the fields of architectural design, engineering systems, ecology, landscaping, the organizing and technical provision for comprehensive pre-school, school and supplementary education, and evaluation of design and construction costs.” The shortlisted firms came from around the world, including The Netherlands, U.S.A., Japan, Finland, and Singapore. They were:


  • Work Architecture Co. – New York
  • CEBRA – Denmark
  • Architects Rudanko – Finland
  • MKPL Architects – Singapore
  • Sou Fujimoto Architects – Japan
  • MVRDV – The Netherlands


In addition to Tina Kandelaki, the jury consisted of Russians, with two outside panelists:

  • Kristin Jarmund, KristinJarmund Arkitekter AS, Norway
  • Ann Finlayson, Chief Executive at SEEd (Sustainability and Environmental Education)
  • Igor Remorenko, Rektor. Moscow Pedagogical University
  • Gregoriy Revzin, Architecture Critic, KB Strelka
  • Helena Osipova, Minister of Culture, Irkutsk
  • Mark Sartan, Project Director, “Smart School”


After the first round of judging, three finalists advanced to the second round: Work Architecture, DEBRA, and Architects Rudanko. It should be noted that much emphasis was placed on landscape design, as this was to be an essential part of the learning environment, with emphasis on agriculture. Thus the inclusion of VEGA landskab and NIRAS engineering together with CEBRA on the winning Danish team was not to be underestimated as a key to their proposal’s success.

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