Casa Montessori & Orff School

We live in a time of thrilling but also challenging tumultuous change in which a return to social solidarity, tolerance and participation increasingly gains in importance. We see landscape architecture as having the potential power to manage social conflicts and migration, establish debates, and live democracy. The implementation of this proposition includes establishing new local communities through education and intercultural exchange. Against the current global challenges of sustainable development, climate change and migrations, this project demonstrates that small-scale interventions can play a vital role as a catalyst for the welcome and lived integration.

A Prairie School in an Industrial Area

The Casa Montessori & Orff School is a small prairie school that offers an authentic Montessori program in Winnipeg, Canada. Following Maria Montessori’s inclusive teachings, the school is a home for families of diverse ethnic and cultural backgrounds, including recent immigrants. Children of this school, ages 2-12, learn to expect equal opportunities and treatment, irrespective of ethnic origin, skin colour, gender, sexual orientation, religion, or nationality, based on democratic principles and tolerance. The school has moved to a new location in an industrial area. Since then, the school has worked on a plan to improve the exterior environment according to the school‘s pedagogical concept. 

How is it possible to translate a pedagogical concept into space or even how to create a miracle for children, teachers and butterflies today? Playing, teaching and learning amongst living plants still seems to be the archetypical notion of a ‘good learning place’ – a setting in which all the senses and even the soul is stimulated in a playful and creative way. 

The Journey of Materials 

Many thousands of years ago, gigantic ice masses moved stones from the far north, perhaps even originating as far as the Hudson Bay. We then collected these erratic blocks and fieldstones from prairie pasturelands. Quarry operators donated alluvial sands and unscreened overburden, which glacial melting water had deposited close to the city thousands of years ago. A former sugar beet factory provided industrial ‘waste’ of crushed limestone used in the sugar beet processing. This sedimentary material is rich in fossils and documents the impressive diversity of organisms that inhabited Ordovician seas. We got permission to transplant endangered tall grasses from a restoration area, using cultural knowledge of building houses out of tall grass sod. We dropped hints of this lost nature into the school’s landscape. The whole site is a stage for illusions and can be interpreted as a place of study or as a field of magical dreams.

Glacial Library 

All materials used in this project resonate with or originate from the Manitoban landscape that experienced millions of years of sediments deposited, removed and then deposited again. We made this glacial archive formed by ice and streams accessible on-site by decrypting history and the stories recorded in the materials. All applied materials quietly tell the complex relationship between the prairie landscape form and its formative processes. Reading and experiencing the materials gently hints at the postglacial history of Manitoba’s landscape ‘biography.’

‘Non-Domesticated’ Environment 

This pro-bono project has allowed the luxury of radically ignoring the conventional professional procedure. Collaborating on this project to transform the outdoor environment, we applied our notion of ‘Radical Play’ through spatial design practice. The building process was characterized by using construction techniques and materials, which allowed volunteers, including children, teachers, students and families of any skill and commitment level, to get involved in the building while learning and laughing together. 

The physical transformation of the outdoor play space was built on the belief in childish experimentation and creativity. The children activate and deactivate materials and spaces, fluctuating freely between permanence, messiness, and a sense of the temporary. Texturing the land with uneven terrain, tall grasses, and diverse loose materials provided beauty and learning through the life and health of a ‘non-domesticated’ environment. 

Resume

Before the transformation, teachers observed much aggressive play in the forms of monster chasing games and fighting over possessions. Children now work together and have adventures of their own making in different areas of the playscape. The new playground proves that a naturalized environment increases creativity and cooperative play and provides a stage for Radical Play and sustainable learning. In light of current global challenges, the school has become an important meeting point for the families and a place of tolerance and autonomy. 

Project location: Casa Montessori & Orff School, 80 Fennell Street, Winnipeg, MB, Canada

Design year: Community collaboration process started in 2011

Year Built: Implementation started in 2013, still ongoing

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