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Designing the new building

It has been four years since Robin’s Nest moved out of Orchard Cottage and into the yurt and three years since we finished a crowdfunding campaign to support the first steps in the process of building our own straw bale house at Emerson College. A lot has happened since and the process is getting more and more exciting as the vision of the building is starting to find its way down to earth. Emerson College has gifted us a beautiful piece of land, close to the lower car park and at the edge of Anne-Marie’s flower garden. We have put all the legal structures in place for the planning and building process and after a successful pre-planning application we have started to prepare the planning application itself. Many people in the community kept on supporting the vision with ideas, offering their skills and excitement to get involved. In December last year everything seemed to be ready to start the design of the building – this would also be the final step in the planning application preparations. We decided to host a ‘design week’, which would be a concentrated working time for our two architects and the community to work together with the purpose of having the design ready at the end of that week. This design week took place in the half term break.


How the yurt informs the vision for our new building

Moving to the yurt has been one of the most valuable experiences in Robin's Nest young biography. It is a living structure, constantly changing and adapting to the environment and weather, expanding and contracting, daily needing care and attention. It enables a living education, an education that is informed by the nature of the setting with its permeable walls, sheltered under the etheric of the ash and the beeches and immersed in the changing seasons with each element bringing a new challenge. We have become more connected to our environment, more appreciative and respectful of nature and above all found real value in the everyday processes that are needed to sustain the setting. The yurt offers a simplistic and authentic experience, unhindered by modern technology. In wintertime we layer up, chop wood and find physical tasks that warm the body. We adapt to our environment, not the other way around. The hearth is constantly tended to, with just the right combination of wood. Too much ash and the fire dwindles, not enough chestnut and we return from our walk to a cold setting. Needing to collect and conserve water can be an invaluable lessons for life. We as teachers are building the very substance to teach out of, which the children witness daily and take part in. Doing this in the yurt, keeps us awake and on our toes. While visioning our new dwelling, it would be very important to keep these processes alive and to continue to be enriched and informed by the natural world around us. The new building would have to meet the needs of the incarnating child and its threefold being, while retaining the qualities of the yurt with its rustic and simplistic nature.


Why involve an architect who lives on the other side of the world?

The architect for this project, Keith Struthers, lives in South Africa and has been working with sculptural architecture for about thirty years. He practices as well as teaches natural architecture all over the world. His children went to Waldorf school and he has designed several buildings for Waldorf schools, including eurythmy halls, classrooms and craft rooms. Keith invited his colleague Eleanor McIntyre, who is more local and lives in Wales, to join our project as well. The reason we are working with Keith and Eleanor, even though they live far away, is that the vision for this building provided the need for an architect who would be able to work with the design process in a holistic way. It was clear that this would not just be a straight forward generative kindergarten design, but that it would need to be a tailor made design for this particular kindergarten in this particular environment and that the process would need to include the community. There are many people and beings that will be affected by the building and its position. Therefore it would be important to have a very inclusive design process. Being present on the ground, gaining permission from the land and elemental beings would be fundamental to this process and is crucial to the culture that we are striving to create. The process would need to involve the community, the ideas and visions of those who have gathered around us over the past few years in support of our project. So we needed someone who would work in a way that really encompasses a creative process and the purpose for the building. The core purpose for this building is to be a space for the incarnating child and that needed to be a core part of the design process. We wanted an architect who is free enough to work in this holistic way.


Hayley and Keith had met in South Africa a few years ago at a workshop on Goethean observation and projective geometry in Towerland Wilderness, the venue of the Proteus Initiative of Allan Kaplan and Sue Davidof. Keith had designed the natural, sculptural buildings and Hayley and Keith discovered a connection in their mutual interest in design methodology. It is this connection that enabled us to find the right architect to facilitate the design process for our new building at Emerson College. We are very grateful that Keith wanted to be a part of this and that he invited Eleanor to join as well. They came for the design week and facilitated a process that indeed brought everything we had wished for and resulted in a beautiful design for the new building.


A building that supports its inner activity and mood

During the design week we asked Keith a bit more about his design methodology. He shared the following with us: “I try to bring a sculptural quality to the buildings so that the inner experience of the individual within the building is supported by the shape of the building. The question is: How do shapes affect us? What shapes affect what mood and how can we best shape our building in particular forms to support the mood that we want to? If you have a workshop or a garage or a kindergarten or a class seven, the question is what is the shape that can support the activity, so that the inner experience and inner life of those who use the building is supported? I have been working with this most of my life, to understand how the inner essence is expressed in the outer form.


So from the outside, when you look at the building, you can see what it is for and from the inside it’s an expression of what’s happening inside the building. In case of the kindergarten, the mood has a delicate sensitivity and openness, it is slightly dreamy but disciplined simultaneously. You don’t want anything too hard-edged or too sharp, but you also don’t want to go too gnomy and create a mood where the children will go to sleep. The question is how to find a balance between the two. The height for instance will be slightly lower than a building for adults, so that it is not too excarnating, but there will also be enough volume so the children can feel the space. The relationship between the outside and the inside is another question, which will show itself for instance in the choice of the amount and shape of the windows. These and more considerations will come up through the community process.”


Community Involvement

Monday and Tuesday provided a space and time for Keith and Eleanor to work with the community. After that they stepped into their creative process with the intention to come up with a design that could be shared at the end of the week with those who had participated. We then would be able to begin to carry the image and the picture within ourselves, so that it would begin to build substance and gain momentum. Keith shared with us that in terms of the design methodology the community involvement is critical. “By facilitating a creative process with the community, you can custom it for them. As long as you’re open to really listening to what it is that they are asking for. My first outset was: take this as something new, be completely open to what is being asked for. This building will stand in a particular climate, in a particular location, in a particular community, for a particular activity. So there’s something that asks to be tailor made to this particular need. I come with openness and with years of experience and then see how I can respond to that need in the best possible way. The listening process is absolutely critical for that. Listening to the land, listening to the community, listening to the existing situation, and being open to how we can be responsive to that. First we went to the land to just be on it. Being with the elemental beings and with people who are sensitive to that, learning about their relationship, speaking with the land and listening to the land, all helped us to get a sense of what actually wants to happen there and helped us to take real cognisance of that. After we had done this, it appeared that the original site that I was thinking of is not appropriate, not in terms of what is there currently. We could always change that, but it is appropriate to listen. So we decided to shift the building, we have relocated it. The location of the building now has sunshine, and has a nice protection to it in terms of the trees in the east part and on the north side. And there are trees in the distance on the west side. It nestles in nicely, so it’s withdrawn a little bit from the main stream that is happening around, as the yurt and the current kindergarten is. This means that the children can live in their own world, which is quite beautiful. But it is also a little bit more extroverted than where it is at the moment.”


Building an imaginative picture of what we would like

On the second day we had a vision building process where we looked at the existing kindergarten in detail. We were seventeen and all of us gathered in front of the yurt where we sang a song, in the same space where the parents, children and teachers sing each morning. From there we looked at the yurt and we approached it as if it were a living person. We went through a process of really immersing ourselves in the qualities, the atmosphere and the characteristics of the existing kindergarten. We gathered these through speaking them out loud as we kept coming closer to the yurt until we eventually entered it. There we continued the process until a quite complete picture had been built. After tea break we entered a second, almost mirroring process, this time with the new building. We cherished those aspects that were really working and we looked for other aspects that we could add to that. So we went through a joint process, initially really looking at what we have and then looking at what we would like, in the context of what we have. In this way we were forming a feeling and a sensibility of what it is that we actually want. Keith said the following about this process: “Rather than just an areas program or an architectural kind of picture, we built an inner picture, an imaginative picture of what we would like. And that as architects has been enormously rich, for a number of reasons. One is that we have the support of the community in what we do, and that is very powerful. When you have 17 people that have worked together plus the rest of the community backing what you’re doing in a very positive atmosphere, it gives you license to be free, creative and responsive.”


The creative process of letting the building emerge

“If the building wants to reflect the liveliness of the children,” Keith told us, “then the process of coming to the design and the process of the construction of the building, needs to be imbued with that same liveliness. There is a great dynamic between Eleanor and myself in terms of creativity. We work in a way where there is a lot of fun, there is a lot of lightness, there is also focus, concentration and diligence. But instead of feeling pressured to come to a quick solution - despite the fact that we have limited time while we’re here - we suspend that pressure. By entering into a slightly playful mood and just dancing lightly with the ideas, by taking stuff and letting it go and getting up and then changing it, and just being adaptable, something can begin to emerge. And that something, in the case of the kindergarten, is quite exciting. It is different to what I expected at the outset of designing. I had certain ideas but we created an open space to try different things and to let the wacky ideas come in. After a while it then slowly started refining and adapting and changing, and what we have now is an exciting building that is responsive to what is there. The next question is then how we can involve the bigger community in the construction of the building in a way that is meaningful for the people as well as for the building. Community work is not just cheap labour but it is a way of adding substance to the building. The mood and the nature of the creative process will manifest itself in the design and construction of the building. So it is important that we are cognisant of how we are consciously in that process. If we become austere, we are going to put up an austere building. We need to embody that lively mood in order to manifest it.”


What is next?

At the end of the design week, Keith and Eleanor presented the design they had created. It follows the shape of an egg and has a very dynamic, yet also held ceiling with a window going all around just under the ceiling. All of this creates a building that provides a balance between the dynamism that lives in children and a holding and still quality. It is a beautiful design for which we are very grateful! Keith and Eleanor will now continue to finalise the design. When it is fully finished, we will be able to send in the planning application, which we hope to have submitted by the end of the summer.




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