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Rudanko+Kankkunen: how to design a school

Rudanko+Kankkunen: how to design a school

The Smart School project, where several international studios competed to design a new ‘intelligent’ school in Irkutsk, attracted entries from many architects specialising in educational design - Danish studio CEBRA eventually came out on top.


One of the six finalists was Architects Rudanko+Kankkunen Ltd., a Finnish studio that has made school just a bit more tolerable for children in Finland and Cambodia with their intelligent designs. They entered the competition together with their team, which included Studio Puisto Architects Ltd, Homeland Group, landscape architect Mari Ariluoma and the engineering office Sweco Structures. We caught up with one half of the partnership, Hilla Rudanko, who told us why her firm entered the Smart School competition, how Russian and Finnish architecture differs, and how she went on a field trip at university and returned home with her first ever professional commission.



Tell us about Architects Rudanko+Kankkunen – who are you, and what do you specialise in?


We are an office based in Helsinki, and we focus on learning environments in building design. This means our main projects are school and kindergarten buildings, spatial design for educational buildings, and transforming existing spaces. Our first project was a school in Cambodia, which is what gained us international recognition, but most of our projects take place here in Finland. Still, we love to work internationally, so by taking part in competitions like Smart School, we can keep our work global.



Apart from the chance to take your work to a new country, what else attracted you to the Smart School competition and working in Russia?


We were keen to compete with large international architectural offices, and we were excited to hear that we would be part of the final selection.  Also, Russia and Finland are close culturally and geographically, so even though it’s a large country with a varied culture, it feels ‘near’ to us Finns. I think Russia is a natural direction to go for us.



Rudanko+Kankkunen's entry to the Smart School competition. All project images courtesy of Architects Rudanko+Kankkunen



We found the competition very well organised – we could communicate very well with the client and with the competition organiser.



When you design educational buildings, are there specific architectural features that you try to include?


In Finland, the National Curriculum is changing to focus on phenomenon-based learning, so rather than teaching separate subjects, the teachers collaborate to create holistic learning packages. For example, rather than learning about lakes, rivers and seas in geography and then studying the properties of water in physics and biology, teachers will put together a programme to teach ‘water’ as a concept, so the children learn all these subjects together. A major change is that much of the learning now happens informally in groups, and also in different settings than a regular classroom.




This really transforms the design of a classroom – we no longer have a space where children all sit facing the teacher. Instead, there are various corners and spaces in the room, and kids must be able to get outside and explore nature and society. If it isn’t easy to get out to nature, we adapt our designs to bring nature inside the building. 


This is a very exciting time for school design. The focus on holistic and group learning is already official in Finland, but there are similar trends going on all over the world – including in Russia, which was another reason for us to enter the Smart School competition.



Your first project was the Sri Pou school in Cambodia. How did you get the commission, and how did the climate and location influence your choice of design and materials?


Anssi (Kankkunen, the other half of Rudanko+Kankkunen) and I actually did this project when we were still students. We went to Cambodia during our university course – we were supposed to interview some NGOs, document their urban environment needs, and then respond to these needs with a theoretical building plan. When we got to Cambodia, there was a slum relocation programme going on in Phnom Penh, so there was a large community who had just been moved to the countryside and needed somewhere to learn new professions.



It was supposed to be an exercise for university, but after we showed the NGO our design, the community got so excited we were asked to actually build it, and then we couldn’t back out! A local landowner donated a plot of land, and we were asked to see our design through – we even worked onsite with local builders and contractors.


It was a very cheap building, just $15,000, and we built it completely out of local sun-dried soil blocks. These blocks were very different to what the locals usually use – they were much bigger, and we had trouble persuading the local contractors to use them, because they usually used smaller, low-quality bricks. The large bricks we used actually contain 5% cement, and when we showed them how they would work, the contractors were finally convinced.



Regarding the design - it was a small building, just 150 sqm, and it was partly open. Its meeting space was under a canopy, and we had to think about how we could combine as many functions as possible in a small space.


Compared to working in Finland, the problems were so different that I’m not sure we’ve directly applied what we learned in Cambodia, but we learned a lot about how to communicate with people and how to demystify learning – to give the impression that it can happen in any kind of building. One of the best qualities of a learning space is that it doesn’t try to hide anything – it shows off the materials it is built of, and it is open to its surroundings. It can be a very plain space, and that’s something we took away from our work in Cambodia. 



As it was our first project it was an overwhelming experience, and it got us excited about designing and building learning spaces. The main factor was that people were so enthusiastic – everyone loves to get a school in their community, and this is something really positive for society.


Many schools are very dull architecturally, in Finland and abroad, so we feel there is a lot we can do in this area.



As an outsider to its architectural community, what do you think about Russian architecture?


Finnish architects have a very strong heritage from Aalto and the modernists. I think our generation has a style of our own, but we do try to repeat that simplicity. It’s wonderful to have clarity and simplicity in architecture, but that means sometimes we’re not that good at decorating anything. Also, we don’t have a lot of clients who want luxury in their buildings, so we rarely design for it. 


This is different from Russia, where there is a huge range of buildings from simple to grandiose. In Finland we don’t really have that range – we like to keep our architecture more modest. Maybe some Finnish architects want to be more flamboyant, but our city planners or the building commission will tell them to calm down! 


Usually when Finnish architects try decoration, it really fails, but there are a couple of projects in Helsinki  that have succeeded very well in façade design. The façade of the new Kaisa University Library in Kaisaniemi, Helsinki, is an interesting example of brickwork and playing with scale. The new apartment buildings by HLP Architects (below) are also interesting: they have created a skilful veil of 'lace concrete' around their Jätkäsaari apartment building.




You are part of Uusi Kaupunki (New City), a collective of young architects and designers who work together to get contracts from municipalities and large clients. How did this come about?


Uusi Kaupunki is a group of young Finnish architecture and design studios that offer consultancy services together. The reason we set it up is that we were all quite young, and we want to get into bigger commissions – especially in the public sector – where it’s tough to compete if you are small or not so experienced. We started by offering design services to Finnish municipalities, and just a few weeks ago we completed our first foreign assignment, in Tallinn.


A large part of our work involves organising workshops on something called participatory planning, which is required by law in Finland – cities must ask their citizens how they want their city to function, feel and look, and the people have the right to complain about new development or planning projects. The way we deal with this is to start the process earlier, in the ideas phase, so people feel more involved. So far the municipalities we have worked with have been on board with the idea, and now we want to start working with larger developers and the private sector.


We think these consultations are very important – they increase the feeling of ownership of our public spaces, and even if people don’t agree with what we are doing, we as architects can let them know about why we have made the decisions we did.



What’s your favourite building?


Oh no!



Can you narrow it down?


One that comes to my mind – I used to live in Zurich, and I was very fond of a project in a viaduct there called Im Viadukt by EM2N. It is in an inspiring part of the city, and an eye-opening new use of an old structure. I like how the architects have taken the spirit of the old and transformed it into something new.



Image: Micha L. Rieser, Wikimedia Commons



And a favourite Russian building?


I’ve only been to St. Petersburg – I don’t know Russia well enough to name a favourite Russian building. It would be unfair for Russian architecture to name one yet. I promise to think about it when travelling and working in Russia in the future!



Who are your main architectural influences? 


There are two Finnish architects, Reima and Raili Pietilä, and their architecture is more naturalist than modernist. What they do is thought-provoking - you can pick up on the clues they leave in their buildings.


Also, I learnt a different approach to open space when I was working with Interboro Partners in New York – they respect urban space more in New York because they have so much less of it. When I was there, the High Line has just been completed, and this got me interested in temporary use of urban space and regaining brownfield sites.




The High Line project in New York (Photo: David Shankbone via Flickr)



Although I think of myself as a global citizen, my main influences still come from Finland – I also very much identify with the continuum of Finnish architecture.




Coming up on WorldBuild365: interview with Carsten Primdahl from CEBRA, the winning studio in the Smart School project.


Cover image: Nick Tulinen

Tags : #Smart School
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