School of Thought: Chonggu Experimental School by BAU

Shanghai-based Brearley Architects+Urbanists (BAU) challenges traditional Chinese teaching models with Chonggu Experimental School, designing formal and informal spaces for creativity and dreaming

Words Brearley Architects+Urbanists (BAU)
Images INNSimages (Chonggu Experimental School)
Editing The Kanto team

Kanto Spaces 2024 Chonggu Experimental School by Brearley Architects+Urbanists (BAU)

Public schools in Shanghai are conservative in their pedagogy, factory, and architecture. The new Chonggu Experimental School provides the potential for a shift from the traditional disciplinary model to less formal, inquiry-based approaches. It also presents a paradigm shift in formal expression, shaping its design for joy, play, and dreaming.

Inspired by the site’s canal and the lyrical drawings of the late architect Zhang Zai Yuan, the language of the school is dreaming—building a world of innovation, creativity, and difference. A familiar typology is followed, with the school having a slab with an external corridor distorting toward the interior courtyard. The orientation aims to evoke the feeling of reality being shaken, with a rope held at one end and waves of different sizes hurtling along its length. This can initially be observed by a crank in the slab, to a bent window and parabolic bay windows, and soon by lines of balconies vibrating with movement.

Formal versus informal models

Academics remain split on the effectiveness of formal versus informal pedagogic models. China remains at the former, with the teacher at the front of all knowledge, and students learning correct answers. Schools such as those applying Reggio Emilia’s philosophy “based on the image of a child with strong potentialities for development and a subject with rights” are at the latter, where students and teachers have significant degrees of autonomy over their curriculum.

Traditional classrooms are well-known in China. They are usually boxy and have an array of desks facing the front. Informal teaching spaces on the other hand are larger rhizomatic, flowing field conditions where teams of teachers oversee students working independently or in small groups. The student-teacher ratio is also high in China, with classes of 40 to 50 students being the norm. With this ratio, it isn’t easy to manage any but the traditional educational model and its requisite multitude of classrooms. Team-teaching, inquiry-driven approaches require more teachers and a corresponding higher wage bill.

China is also anticipating a dramatic drop in the number of school students, as the birth rate in the country is declining. This may result in free space in existing schools and create opportunities for experimentation with pedagogies. It can also mean a shift in the student-teacher ratio in schools, allowing for more focused learning in classrooms. New school architecture will demand flexibility to adapt to these space requirements and enable these progressive initiatives.

The reality is that the arduous hours of study make Chinese students highly educated, not as much the teaching style. The issue of children heavily burdened with studying is acknowledged by authorities but has proven almost impossible to alleviate. A more student-centered educational model could be one solution to creating a more varied, fulfilling, and enjoyable curriculum, without reducing the required learning intensity. It might also prepare students to be nimbler for an AI future.

Design answers

Chonggu Experimental School encourages student-centered learning in several ways. First, the column structure allows the walls between two or three classrooms to be replaced by operable walls, enabling team teaching. Second, the classroom corridors running the length of the slab building can be enclosed with glazing to create a generous internal street suitable for programs such as exhibitions. Third, the rooms at the knuckles in the slab building are designed to be used as student study and project space. Lastly, the large meandering corridor network within the two-story extra-curricular buildings is wide and designed with bulges to accommodate all manner of study and nooks and pods. Peer-to-peer learning, digital-based learning, project-based learning, student enquiry, and STEAM learning can be supported in these informal spaces.

Kanto Spaces 2024 Chonggu Experimental School by Brearley Architects+Urbanists (BAU)


The site is adjacent to one of Qinpu’s hundreds of canals. The gymnasium, library, auditorium, music school, art school, and various special functions are placed here with windows, verandas, and terraces overlooking the canal. The taller classroom building’s balconies overlook the green roofs of the specialized buildings and the canal. The existing public canal fence will be removed in the future and a landscape will be developed to integrate the school with the canal.

Bleachers and pitches

The sports hall and canteen are located adjacent to the sports grounds. Grandstand seating connects the rooftop and second-floor level with the sports fields and provides a place for students to hang out. The canteen is located to enable further view sharing from the adjacent taller teaching wing. Along with its terrace, the canteen hall has broad views over the sports fields, activities, and beyond.


Despite the curved edges of the floor slabs, the buildings adopt a standard structural grid to facilitate the assembly of prefabricated components. The external walls, columns, floor slabs, and staircases are rationalized to enable a minimum 40% prefabrication rate for both the overall construction and for each building. Prefabrication reduces cost, time, wastage, and urban disruption.  It also enables a higher quality of construction and finish.

Summer smart

To counter Qingpu’s notoriously hot summers, lower carbon consumption, and improve comfort levels, passive solar control is employed.  Eaves and fins prevent most of the summer sun from entering the buildings.  The majority of the site and rooftops are also vegetated. This supports sustainable urban drainage systems, sponge city objectives, biodiversity, and the lowering of the urban heat island phenomenon.

Filled with potential

The increasingly popular team-teaching pedagogies profess to find the potential of all students, particularly those who are unmotivated in the traditional system. Chonggu Experimental School also provides the opportunity for all manner of educators to fulfill their potential and engage in other ways of teaching. The architecture supports a traditional pedagogy but under enlightened and adventurous leadership, it can equally encourage and support alternative learning methods. •

Project Information

Completed: 2023
Location: Shanghai, Qingpu Distric
Construction area: 21, 425 square meters
Construction cost: ¥145.365 million
Program: primary school Year 1-6, twenty classrooms; middle school Year 7-9, sixteen classrooms; canteen, gym, lecture hall, theater, library; science classrooms, music rooms, dance rooms, art rooms, sports grounds.

BAU project team

Architecture: James Brearley, Huaili Luo, Wang Liao, He Huang, Zheng Li, Shuangdiao Wang, Xiaohang Qin, Francisco Garcia, Wenxuan Yao;
Landscape: Fang Huang, Liexia Guo, Yuqing He, Li Luo, Zhengting Shi;
Interior: Mingdong Wang, Jiaming Zheng

Client: Shanghai Qingpu District Education Comprehensive Affairs Centre
Project Management: Shanghai Qingpu Newcity Development (Group) Co.,Ltd.
Engineering and architecture documentation: Shanghai Hanlian Architectural Design Consulting Co. Ltd.
Contractor: China Railway No.4 Engineering Group Co.,Ltd.

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