Storieboom skool: a new nursery school for 78-year-old Jan Celliers Laerskool en Pre-Primêr

By Hayley Pienaar

It’s not often that an award-winning architect and the creator of iconic buildings such as the landmark Circa on Jellicoe in Johannesburg takes on the design and project management of a nursery school.

It was, however, in his best interest: his own child attends the school in question – 78-year-old Jan Celliers Laerskool en Pre-Primêr, located adjacent to Zoo Lake in Johannesburg. Eventually, Pierre Swanepoel of StudioMAS was persuaded to design another masterpiece, aiming to accommodate 185 children from Grade 000 to Grade 0.

The structure has been thoughtfully designed around an ancient tree, lovingly referred to by learners, teachers and parents alike as “die storieboom” (the story tree). When asked whether the tree had restricted his plans, Swanepoel laughed and said, “This is like the Seven Hills of Rome. You work around the natural elements on the site because ‘die storieboom’ is very important to the school.”

As this Christian school bases everything it does on the word of God, as the foundations were being laid, each child wrote out a biblical verse or prayer on a tile and threw it into the foundation of the building.

The project was designed so that the new nursery school could open its doors in May, at the start of the second term. Jan Celliers has never had so many learners in its history, so there was a great need to expand the school to accommodate the burgeoning waiting list. There are currently 561 learners from Grade 000 to Grade 7.

Phoenix rising

The beauty of building on an historical site is that the land does indeed have a rich story to tell. “It was unwanted land, a garbage dump or ash heap in fact, which was made available to the Afrikaans community in 1937, as they wanted to build a school and educate their children in their own mother tongue,” says Jan Celliers academic head and history teacher, Karen Swanepoel.

Jan Celliers was built in 1937 to mirror the gables of Vergelegen, the elegant Cape Dutch manor house in Somerset West in the Western Cape. Jan F.E. Celliers (1865–1940) himself was a man of letters, probably most famous for his poem Dis Al’, which speaks of the aftermath of an Anglo-Boer battle and has led to the school’s motto: “Ons streef na uitmuntendheid, Dis Al.” (We strive for excellence, that’s all.)

The new nursery school has been constructed with the utmost care and thoughtfulness when it comes to contemporising the architectural style of the original school building. There is also evidence of the architect’s philosophy that concrete “ages in a dignified way” and glass “prevents alienation from the outside”.

Greatness in the gardens

There are also plans for significant situated art pieces to be strategically placed around the site. With a nod to its humble history, there will be a permanent installation comprised of rubble, dug up whilst excavating the site. Children will also play among the statue of an Nguni cow (a cultural symbol of wealth and status in Africa) and a rhinoceros (highlighting conservation awareness).

Another exciting artistic focal point will be the beautiful bronze bust of Jan Celliers, which at present is situated in a dark corner but will be brought out into the light and given pride of place at the entrance to the building.

Sonja Swanepoel, the landscape architect for the new nursery school project, has been hard at work creating a sensory garden.

“We have created holes in the wall in the hope that birds will nest here,” she says. “We like organic buildings, so there will be a pergola with creepers that will establish themselves on the building in time.” All early learning educators know that water and sand are essential to sensory development, so Swanepoel has sculpted sandpit and water trough areas, where children will be able to “float their boats and experiment with water”.

Focus on maximising space

Pierre Swanepoel is expert at explaining the eco-approach used in the creation of the new preschool: classrooms are functional and utilitarian, supplied with underfloor heating (the energy comes from heat pumps), easy-to-clean screed floors, marbelite work surfaces, a big basin in each classroom, and fans to keep the temperature cool in summer and the warm air circulating downwards in winter. “Children are on the floor all the time, so it makes sense to heat the floor,” Swanepoel explains.

Then there are adjacent little toilets and basins for the children and a gloriously big storeroom for all teachers’ supplies. Shutters separate the space into classrooms, but they can easily be raised to create one big space for music lessons or group activities. There is also a ‘chalk wall’, where learners will be able to draw and express themselves to their hearts’ content!

More plans afoot

Of course, an expansion in the foundation phase has a ripple effect on the rest of the school. Plans are afoot for further development, including an aquatics centre for the school. “The nursery school is the growth point of our school and underpins the stability of our future. We are extremely excited about it,” says Jan Celliers headmaster, Gerhard Keyter. “Schools have become more like community centres, a place where people can share and enjoy the facilities,” say both Swanepoels.

Reference:

1. See, for example, http://www.woorde.co.za/Digters/Jan_F.E._Cilliers.html.

Category: Winter 2013

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