The project pioneers an alternative learning environment for rural schools in China. The majority of newly built schools in China are generic, two-story concrete frame structures, with little regard for local specificity of climate, landscape or materials. The project demonstrates design innovation in a highly constrained context in terms of budget, skilled workers and construction techniques.
An educational landscape is created by connecting an existing school building to a new primary school, toilet, and playground through a series of interlinked open spaces. The spaces between the buildings have different spatial qualities: from outside seating areas, internal courtyards, micro-gardens, shaded circulation areas, to more formal sports areas. In this way, the project creates opportunities for learning to take place not only within the school, but outside the classroom environment as well. The school departs from the typical structure of a rural school in China — a gated facility composed of a building flanking a sports area. In contrast, the public spaces and facilities of Mulan School are open to access for local villagers.
The construction of a new high-speed rail line on the other side of a small hill behind the school, created a depository of loose earth that, during extreme rain during monsoon season, posed a risk to the playground below. The lack of sufficient drainage caused staining and water damage to the existing school building. In response, the design of the toilet block incorporates a retaining wall linked to a natural reed bed system to filter waste water. The design forms a boundary edge to the site, increasing its stability, and at the same time allows polluted waste water to be remediated before entering the river. It demonstrates how sustainable aims can be realized in rural areas with limited means, not only in China, but in other parts of the world.
The project has received the Highly Commended Award in the AR Schools Award 2015, (1 of 3 awards) and was one of the key contributing projects that led to the awarding of both the 2015 Curry Stone Design Award and the 2014 Ralph Erskine 100 Years Anniversary Award. It has been published in numerous international professional journals and exhibited at the inaugural 2015 Chicago Biennale.