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A school building model produced by Lab-École as part of its 2019 publication, Penser l'école de demain.Jean-Francois Lajoie

When a child gets to school, the lessons come from everywhere: not just from the teacher, but also from the classroom itself.

Now imagine that the classroom is brightly sunlit, with tall ceilings opening onto a garden where students help grow food for lunch. And the room is generously sized and flexible, within a school that has a comfortable dining area and a large gym – all spaces that can be used by the community after hours.

This is the architectural vision that the non-profit group Lab-École is advancing in Quebec, with some support from the province’s Ministry of Education. “A school is not only a corridor and a classroom,” says the architect Pierre Thibault, one of the group’s founders. “It is also a place for community.”

It’s an idea that seems both commonsensical and radical. The group is pushing Quebec – and the rest of the country – to embrace its ideals of a generous civil society and create architecture and landscape to match it.

Thibault co-founded the organization in 2017 along with celebrity chef Ricardo Larrivée and athlete Pierre Lavoie. Their shared mandate: to improve the health, nutrition and learning environments of Quebec students, starting in primary school.

Early in 2019, the group produced a 250-page publication, Imagining the School of Tomorrow. A serious piece of design research, it breaks down a school building into its components and imagines how each of these – classrooms, corridor to dining areas and playgrounds – could be rethought and recombined.

“I’ve been to Denmark, Finland, Japan, and I’ve been so impressed by the schools I’ve seen there,” Thibault says. The group’s publication cites examples by architects 3XN, BIG and C.F. Moller in Denmark and by Verstas Architects in Finland – all with generous spaces, high-quality finishes and connections to their surrounding neighbourhoods. “Why is it so difficult to have this kind of school in our country?”

For Thibault and Lab-École, the answer is partly ossified thinking. “The layout of schools has not changed in 50 years,” he says. Think of a bar-shaped building, with a corridor down the centre and classrooms on either side. “But students have changed and the pedagogy has changed.”

To address this, the organization and Quebec’s Ministry of Education have now launched open-design competitions for five school construction and repair projects.

The competitions are open and anonymous – an unusual arrangement that allows all architects to compete on the strength of their ideas, rather than winning a job with their résumés. “We hope it’s going to lift up the profession,” says Nicolas Marier, a Montreal architect and urban designer who is coordinating the design competitions for Lab-École. “We want to rethink how we learn.”

The five projects – a renovation, additions and new schools – are scattered across the province in Gatineau, Maskinongé, Rimouski, Saguenay and Shefford. The school boards there are among 40 that applied, with municipal co-operation, to take part in the program. The resulting projects are scheduled to be completed in 2021 and 2022.

They will cost more than the standard, roughly 25 per cent more. According to Thibault, Quebec’s budget guideline for school construction is around $3,000 for every square metre, or about $278 every square foot. This is not a lavish number, particularly in cities, and the architect argues that it’s inadequate. “For a building that will last 40 or 50 years,” he says, “we need to invest. Can you imagine how many days the students will spend there?”

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Lab-École's design research breaks down a school building into its components and imagines how each of these – classrooms, corridor to dining areas and playgrounds – could be rethought and recombined.Jean-Francois Lajoie/Handout

The issue isn’t only quality of education – although there is research connecting the learning environment to improved outcomes. It’s also, in Lab-École’s thinking, about citizenship. “A school is like a home for the students,” Thibault says. “And this is the first place they connect with public buildings and the larger society. We need to create a good environment.”

This is what’s most surprising about the initiative, at least in a North American context. It’s the very idea that public buildings matter and should be excellent.

Lab-École was established under a Liberal government and survived the transition to the current Coalition Avenir Québec government. Thibault says the organization is relatively small, and he cites its promise to deliver broad social benefits. “Our budget is nothing, compared to the potential results,” he says.

But implicit in this argument is a faith in the importance and the value of public education, of public institutions.

This seems detached from what’s happening in the rest of Canada, where the quality of schools – and public buildings generally – is in a long decline. Schools in most provinces are now often built using standardized designs and through complex public-private partnerships. The emphasis is on cost control and efficiency.

In Ontario, the province has been squeezing dollars out of education for 20 years by deferring maintenance, and new buildings are increasingly cheap and generic; the province’s Ministry of Education is pushing further in that direction.

Lab-École, if it succeeds, will show another path. “We have to raise the standard,” Marier says. “Education is the spinal cord of a society; we have to ask how we are making schools now and how we can do better.”

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