Education: The structure's design embodies the philosophy of the Waldorf Schools.

January 18, 1998|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,SUN ARCHITECTURE CRITIC

The little red schoolhouse, this isn't.

From the moment visitors approach Baltimore's newest private school building, with its irregular roofline, undulating walls and nonrectilinear windows, they can sense something unusual is going on inside.

Once through the front door, they'll discover the classrooms come in many different shapes and sizes. Walls are glazed with multiple coats of paint, in colors selected either to "warm up" students or "cool them down." Halls are veritable galleries of student artwork. They lead to areas for specialized subjects such as "handwork" and "eurythmy."

If it all sounds a bit different from P.S. 101, it is. This is the new home for the Waldorf School of Baltimore, at 4801 Tamarind Road in the city's Coldspring community. It's a learning environment that itself has a lot to teach -- about the way architecture can be used to stimulate young minds.

Quirky, engaging, full of surprises, this school doesn't simply grow out of the curriculum, it embodies it.

"There's a myth that this is an arts school," said Dan Goldstein, past president of the board and past chairman of the building committee. "It's not an arts-based curriculum. It's an arts-integrated curriculum. Our concept of education is to educate the whole child for life."

Part of the growing Waldorf School movement, which has spawned 600 independent schools worldwide and more than 100 in North America, the local institution was established in 1971 and now has 225 students from nursery school to eighth grade.

Constructed at a cost of $4 million, the new building opened last fall to replace facilities that were previously scattered in several locations at Coldspring. Its completion marks the first time grades one to eight have all been under the same roof (nursery and kindergarten classes meet at a separate location nearby).

Designed by Baltimore architects Peter Doo and Randy Sovich, the new Waldorf School is also a highly visible addition to Coldspring, the "new town in town" designed by Canadian architect Moshe Safdie. To celebrate its completion, the school will open the building to the public Saturday at 10 a.m. and Feb. 8 at 2 p.m.

Setting and philosophy

From an architectural standpoint, the most significant aspect of the new Waldorf School is the way the physical setting supports and expresses the educational philosophy behind it.

The Waldorf School movement began in Stuttgart, Germany, in 1919. It was launched by Emil Molt, director of the Waldorf-Astoria cigarette factory, who wanted a school for the children of his employees. To design the curriculum, Molt turned to Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner, whose ideas about teaching were radically different from other educators of his day.

Steiner, who lived from 1861 to 1925, believed that students learn best when they are active participants in the learning process. Among his educational tenets are that art, music and handicrafts are as important as reading, writing and arithmetic; that each day should include activities for the hands, body and heart as well as the head; and that education has a strong moral and spiritual element.

At Waldorf schools, students have few tests, grades or textbooks. Ideally, they stay with the same teacher from grade one to grade eight, although they also participate in classes taught by specialists.

Steiner believed that the environment in which children learn should be as stimulating as the books they read or the music to which they listen. Among his design ideas were that rooms should not have four right angles and that children of different ages should be exposed to rooms with different colors. He also advocated the extensive use of wood, stone and other natural materials.

"When you're talking about Waldorf education, you're talking about drawing out what is already in a child," Goldstein said. "You're not confining children to a square, boring space. You're trying to spark their imaginations."

It's very much an "experiential environment," Doo said. "The goal is to wake up the natural creativity that every child has within."

At Coldspring, classes had previously been held in buildings that were constructed for other uses and adapted to teaching space. The new building represented the first opportunity that educators and parents had to create a permanent home based on Steiner's principles. Despite limitations of site and budget, their architects enabled them to do just that.

"It was done on a shoestring budget, but it doesn't look like it," Goldstein marveled. " It works. It's quite rigorous from an academic point of view."

The uniqueness of Baltimore's Waldorf School begins with the site, an L-shaped concrete "pad" provided by the city of Baltimore.

The block-long structure was designed by Safdie and constructed at a cost of $3.6 million in federal funds to serve as the foundation for luxury housing that never materialized.

Aid from city

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