CRISSIER — Not far from a highway turnoff near the Swiss city of Lausanne, there is a wooded enclave surrounded by a national forest. On a slice of these lands — around 70 acres of woods, agricultural fields and parks — the pupils of the Bois Genoud private school are enjoying themselves in complete freedom.

Because not far from a small handful of other constructions — such as Le Castel, a late 18th century house transformed into an organic restaurant — a school has sprung up in the most bucolic of settings that is a very different example of state-of-the-art educational architecture.

The Rudolf Steiner school complex is a series of prefabricated lodges spread around in such a way that each structure sits in the midst of a certain type of plant. It gives the place an old-fashioned Little House on the Prairie kind of feeling, which also allows it to fully realize the philosophical and educational precepts linked to school.

A direct relationship with nature is one of those fundamental ideas. The single-story buildings on campus are an attempt to fulfill a different version of 21st-century architecture, one in which pupils would are not disturbed in their learning.

The school facility was completely redesigned by the Lausanne-based office Localarchitecture. One of its lodges, intended for the 14- to 18 year-old students, marks the first phase of its new youth. The three associates — Manuel Bieler, Antoine Robert-Grandpierre and Laurent Saurer — are best known for such works as the Saint-Loup Chapel, an audacious origami-like building made of wood, or the roof of the Renens Market, a concrete canopy pierced by trees.

The concept of atmosphere is at the heart of the architects’ work, says Robert-Grandpierre. “A building’s charismatic presence rains down upon a place’s atmosphere,” the architect says. “This is mainly what we’re trying to accomplish with this project.”

Educational symbiosis

This lodge, made of structural wood, was built in just over five months, a record for such a large building, and was operational at the start of the 2012 school year. It fits elegantly in this piece of land, in harmony with both the existing units and its natural setting.

Inside a classroom — Photo: Official website

The site’s location, next to high-voltage power lines and a highway, determined the shape of the place. “We conceived a passive solar design,” explains Manuel Bieler. “There’s a real reflection around energy in this project: the lodge is closed at the back to protect it from noise and cold.The entirely glazed façade opens towards the south, which enables passive heating from the sun. During summer, the passageways, which are sort of hanging balconies, serve as a natural solar protection when the sun is at its highest point.” The architect also notes that during the cold of winter, when the area is foggy, extra heating is produced by a heat pump and by solar cells that cover the roofing.

Concerning the spatial organization, the architects did not set up anything for internal movement. To get from one class to another, the pupils must go out into the open air. Each room has direct access to the outside. This absence of hierarchy in the layout follows one of the founding educational principals, where no distinction is made between younger and older classes.

Bieler says that the three-story lodge where the classrooms are extended with large balconies, separated by sliding bay windows, creates open teaching spaces to use when the weather is warm.

“The passageways play a role in the pedagogical process, in the energy distribution and in the architecture,” he explains.

The fact that people can access the building through several entrances mimics the campus organization itself, which allows access through the Castel, the car park or even through the nearby train station.

Imagining a private school such as the Bois Genoud allowed the architects to express their creativity, more than they might have been permitted with a public institution. Antoine Robert-Grandpierre explains the unique opportunity to innovate. “Conceiving this school gave us the possibility to develop another way of approaching a teaching space, open in nature.”