It's cold out there and, for the most part, architecturally frigid. But don't give up. Take a well-deserved break from the architecture that freezes our brains and our senses from an early age in our classrooms. Across Canada and the United States, school architecture - all cinder block and no imagination - is typically built for much the same amount of money as parking garages. It's a criminal investment in future generations but it helps to explain the media buzz, the TED Talk and the magnetic draw of the Green School in Bali. Canadian jewellery magnate John Hardy has given the world a remarkable new temple of learning, its centrepiece made entirely from bamboo, where the classrooms soar three storeys into a series of spirals.
Green School might have been a primal scream in the jungle for vigorous, authentic architecture that nobody but the monkeys in the banyan trees could hear. But the story of Green School, which opened its doors in 2008, is like a legend that grows out of fantasy with lessons that endure in reality. Massive luxury resorts for tourists are going up all over the South Pacific island, but Hardy and his designer wife, Cynthia, wanted to trust local ideas of culture, vernacular architecture and food production. Turns out this is exactly what a lot of people are craving.
Imagine being able to walk a path of black volcanic stone to a curved "Da Vinci" bridge that connects the Green School's 20-acre campus and previously separated villages to each other. Cross the Ayung River and follow the path past the school's goats, buffalos and cows to gardens planted with vegetables. The circular form of the school, with protective rooftops thatched with alang-alang grass, touches down alongside the gardens so that, even before students enter their classrooms, they can see for themselves how organic Balinese rice and other foods are locally produced.
Located 15 minutes south of Ubud, a town historically rich in the arts that was featured in Elizabeth Gilbert's novel Eat Pray Love, the Green School, with classes from the nursery-school level to Grade 10, combines standard International Baccalaureate programs with green studies such as carbon-footprint analysis and organic farming. There's instruction in batik and traditional bamboo construction as well as Balinese mud wrestling. The overarching mandate, though, is to unleash four kinds of intelligence in such a way to appeal both to girls and boys: cerebral (IQ), physical (KQ), emotional (EQ) and spiritual (SQ).
About 20 per cent of the approximately 200 students are local Balinese - the Green School foundation covers the private tuition fees - while other students come from around the world. What draws them to the bamboo school is a chance to learn that the world is not indestructible; that there are honourable ways to go about living lightly on it. Those are educational basics being planted elsewhere around the world, to be sure, including within many Canadian schools. The great difference here has to do with the expressive, authentic architecture of the Green School complex. Where rammed-earth benches create a sunken, elliptical pit for sleek study desks, the design is reminiscent of mid-century modern. Instead of Danish teak or rosewood, everything - even the desks - is made of bamboo. There are no walls, just openings for the breezes that expand or contract depending on the curves or dramatic angles of the big, protective roofs.
While the production of cement requires massive amounts of heat-generating energy, bamboo, technically a grass, grows fast and can release 35 per cent more oxygen into the air than trees. In South East Asia, bamboo is used as scaffolding. Hardy wanted to showcase bamboo's inherent beauty and strength: In what's called Heart of School, built for an estimated $225,000, high drama is delivered when the building's structural columns rise up to create three interconnecting spirals within the jungle.
The school's buildings were initially conceived by an architect as a static series of boxes set alongside the river. Hardy categorically rejected that concept, finding it reminiscent of his own awful time in Canadian elementary school; you'll find no mention of any architect of record. What he wanted was architecture in motion, not something static.
A self-described undiagnosed dyslexic, Hardy sometimes refers visitors to his old elementary-school report cards, which described him as being "listless, inattentive, distracted. A daydreamer. Tries his best, but is too slow." The same architects responsible for the local mental asylum and prison had designed his elementary school near Ottawa as an unforgiving box, a skillfully expressed observation by Hardy that elicited some laughs during his TED Talk last year.
Sadly, despite all kinds of gains in more progressive, holistic curricula and more energy-efficient lighting and mechanical systems, the architecture of the typical Canadian school is bland and unforgiving. Sheila Penny, executive superintendent of facilities for the Toronto District School Board, is required to wring hopeful-looking buildings out of impossible budgets: The Ontario Ministry of Education funds $180 per square foot for high schools, and a punishing $165 for elementary schools.
Some happy times were spent by Hardy learning jewellery design at the Ontario College of Art & Design. When he was 25, he left Canada for Indonesia, eventually to turn the local Balinese tradition of weaving and jewellery design into his own international luxury brand. During the 1990s, he landed deals to supply his locally made sterling-silver work to Neiman Marcus and Saks Fifth Avenue. Four years ago, Hardy sold the company to concentrate on other things. Giving back to Bali is what motivated the establishment of the Meranggi Foundation, which supplies local Balinese farmers with bamboo seeds to grow. The foundation then buys the mature bamboo from the farmers, providing a livelihood and allowing for the supply of bamboo it requires for the building of privately commissioned homes and large projects such as the Green School.
"As a complex and as a vision, it's amazing," says Toronto architect Brigitte Shim, principal of Shim-Sutcliffe Architects, who toured and formally reviewed the Green School as one of the projects short-listed for the prestigious 2010 Aga Khan Award for Architecture. What impressed her was the creation of a fully resolved picture of sustainability. The Hardys' dream is to build another 50 Green Schools. The Green School model could be designed in Canada to magnificently align with all four seasons. Who will back the idea? And watch as kids warm up to all kinds of intelligent learning?