Sweden’s young population is growing at an explosive rate–so much so that the country needs 77,000 new full-time teachers within the next five years. Classrooms themselves are in short supply, too, which is leading many schools to stretch their footprints with portable add-ons called “barracks,” relatively unattractive, trailer-like prefabs. The buildings are cheap, and can be erected with fewer permits than brick structures. But they also look a bit like jails, and often get plopped right on top of the only open land on campus: playgrounds.
Working under a federal arts grant, the Swedish architecture firm UMA has conceptualized a few ingeniously whimsical fixes to the barracks problem in Stockholm. The firm has developed six conceptual facades for the prefab classrooms, one of which will be selected for production this summer, to turn the drab buildings into interactive play spaces.
Sweden isn’t the only country with a portables addiction. Many parts of the world, and notably, the U.S., buy these buildings instead of constructing brick additions or fixing buildings that have fallen into disrepair. Given that 53% of schools in the United States require repairs and upgrades, portable buildings offer a quick fix but can become an unappealing, permanent solution.
Which makes UMA’s ideas even more compelling. The most striking concept is The Wave. It’s a simple skeleton built from laser-cut plywood, but it creates a mini, outdoor library. Bookshelves slot right into the vertical wood frame, while the crest of the wave provides shelter from sun and rain. A blue rubber mat can be rolled out to complete the water effect on the ground.
The wildest idea, however, is the Big Bend. For this plan, UMA proposes a seamless curve of grass that starts from the ground and flows right up the building’s wall. A whole, second playground lives perpendicular to the earth, complete with a soccer net and slide. At first glance, it almost looks like a cruel trick–kids will be able to see all of this playground equipment that cannot actually be played with. But UMA simply asks that we redefine play. On the wall, a hopscotch grid can become a target for kickball, and a metal slide resembles a funhouse mirror. And once the temporary building is removed–ideally because the school finds another location for a more permanent building–this 90-degree playground can be rolled out flat, so nothing is wasted in the process.
Even though only one plan will move into production, all of these ideas fundamentally rethink what a portable can do beyond provide mere classroom space. That’s important. Because while schools are buildings where our children learn, research has shown that kids respond better in comfortable environments that are clean and decorated with art. In other words, all of the whimsy we see in early school classrooms is by design. Kids prefer to learn when surrounded by a bit of magic.