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17.02.2021 - Ausgabe: 1/2021

Wilhelm-von-Humboldt-Schule: a new look for two schoolyards

By Eva Zerjatke (Henningsen Landschaftsarchitekten PartG mbB)

Christo Libuda (Lichtschwärmer)

“We ain’t looking for a party / We ain’t having none of that”, chants the band Deichkind in their song «Keine Party» (“No Party”). In the accompanying music video, they have actor Lars Eidinger dance exuberantly to their beats in the schoolyard of the Wilhelm-von-Humboldt-Schule; be it on the parkour facility, the sports field or the edging of the sand play area. 

So spaces with a distinct identity inspired not only pupils, but also actors and musicians! 


The school 

The Wilhelm-von-Humboldt-Schule was established as a pilot scheme. It was founded in 2008 as Berlin’s first “Gemeinschaftsschule” (a kind of comprehensive school). More than 820 pupils from Years 1 to 10 learn here under one roof. Instead of being divided into classes, they learn in cross-year and cross-curricular learning groups. 

As an all-day compulsory school, the school also offers a wide range of leisure and study activities in the afternoon. This school is thus not only a classical educational institution, but rather a meeting place for schoolchildren of all ages in the neighbourhood.


The site 

The school is located within a densely built-up residential area in Berlin’s Prenzlauer Berg district. It is made up of several school buildings, which are located on two neighbouring plots of land.

On the one hand, there is the venerable, massive old building. Together with the side wings and the front building, it was built between 1913 and 1916 by the Berlin architect and head of urban planning Ludwig Hoffmann. Together with the inner schoolyard, these buildings are listed as a whole. The self-contained schoolyard of the old building had already been closed months before the actual start of construction of the schoolyard due to dilapidation. 

On the other hand, there is the newer school building, which was built between 1957 and 1959 and represents the modern, functional architectural style of the early GDR. It is not protected as an architectural monument, but with its striking glass façade of coloured mosaics, it is of great value in terms of architectural history. 

Behind the newer school building is the larger schoolyard, mainly used by the younger children. When the “Gemeinschaftsschule” was founded in 2008, parts of this schoolyard had already been redesigned as part of the “The Future of Education and Care” investment programme (IZBB). These areas, which were created with subsidies, had to be preserved in the course of the redesign. 

Due to the closure of the small schoolyard of the old building and the insufficient design of the larger schoolyard, the around 820 pupils had only just about 37,674 square feet of usable school open space at their disposable before the redesign of their schoolyards. Including the sports areas, this corresponded to less than 48 square feet per child. In comparison, 135 square feet of space must be provided for a car parking space. 


The challenges

We thus faced numerous challenges in planning the school’s outdoor facilities. On the one hand, we wanted to do justice to the special school type of the “Gemeinschaftsschule” with its various educational courses and high educational standards. On the other hand, the heterogeneous types of buildings led to rather small open spaces that were difficult to divide into individual areas for a contemporary design of school open spaces. 

In addition, the school building was renovated while the outdoor facilities were being built. All this work was carried out while the school was in full swing and all pupils were present. 

Further constraints were imposed by the requirements for the preservation of historical monuments, the consideration of noise protection in the residential area and the mandatory preservation of the partial areas built with subsidies. These complex constraints required a great deal of creativity and flexibility from all those involved in the project and planning.


The design  

Nevertheless, we tried to make the best of all these constraints! The fragmented and heterogeneous nature of the existing schoolyards gave way to spaciousness, i.e. we turned the many different schoolyard sections into two distinctive and individual schoolyards. 

We honed the functions of each schoolyard by clearly defining their design and use and also clearly distinguishing between them. This deliberate division helped to bring out the special monumental value in the smaller courtyard of the old building and to preserve and showcase the existing old trees. 

In the larger schoolyard, this helped to enhance and almost naturally integrate the IZBB sections that were to be preserved, because the further development of their curved forms also resulted in an identity-creating and striking new schoolyard design.

A multifunctional use of spaces also helped to create a variety of opportunities for play, sports and learning at this cramped, inner-city school location without sacrificing the spaciousness and clarity of the design. For example, the central synthetic playing field in the courtyard also serves as a recreational and exercise area, since a perimeter fence was dispensed with in favour of a ball stop fencing only at the ends. And the varied parkour facility, consisting of various balance and climbing equipment, is a meeting place, climbing route and sports equipment all in one. The windowless building façade is also put to new use by placing a bouldering wall with colourful climbing holds in front of it to save space. 


Large schoolyard

The larger schoolyard is situated between the new and old buildings. It primarily offers play opportunities for younger pupils. Its uniform, robust surface of light-coloured rectangular concrete paving blocks is in the same format as the existing concrete block pavements to be preserved. The curved activity islands in this surface, located in the centre of the schoolyard, were made of coloured surfacing of asphalt, synthetic material and play sand. The individual islands accommodate a climbing rope system, a bouldering wall, a parkour facility, a small stage or in-ground trampolines, depending on the activity. Free-standing hammocks, table tennis tables and various seating furniture add to the range of activities in this schoolyard. In the centre of the schoolyard is a small, rectangular synthetic playing field for playing football and basketball. It is only fenced in at the ends and therefore serves as both a recreational area and a sports area. In addition, a new long jump facility was built for the school on the adjoining sports ground as a supplementary sports area to this field.


Small schoolyard

The smaller inner courtyard of the old building is mainly used by the older pupils. In an attempt to recreate its original design, this almost square courtyard was restored in a contemporary form. 

The inner square of the schoolyard was paved with a yellow, coated bituminous surface instead of the original water-bound surfacing because of its better usability and maintainability. In the perimeter areas, granite mosaic sett paving was laid in front of the buildings as a connecting frame. Directly in front of the base of the old building, low perennials and grasses surround the stone courtyard. In front of the plants, classic Berlin benches with wooden slats have been installed. Following the historical model, a trellis was attached to the renovated building façade; instead of wood, however, it was a more sustainable metal structure. 

Standard hawthorn trees were also replanted in their original tree grid, which can be identified on the basis of historical site plans. The existing old lime trees were incorporated into the new design. They were not planted at the time of construction, but afterwards within raised planting beds and outside the historic tree grid. The new edging of these lime trees with precast concrete elements made it possible to preserve the trees and at the same time provide seating elements and partitions in the courtyard. 


Planting and materiality

In both schoolyards, low-maintenance facade planting and robust shrubs form a green frame around the paved courtyard areas. Tall shrubs at the edge of the larger schoolyard and newly planted trees in the paved areas of both schoolyards provide shade, improve the microclimate and increase the amenity value. 

Concrete blocks meet synthetic materials and bitumen meets natural stone. Steel and concrete edgings, coloured benches as well as playground and sports equipment combine to produce a harmonious interplay of colours and materials in the school’s outdoor areas.



Not only observing this process of change in the school’s outdoor areas, but also helping to shape it, is exciting and instructive. With the support of the Pankow Youth Welfare Office, the pupils were able to draw, describe or otherwise explain their ideas for their schoolyards in several joint workshops. Their commitment yielded a multitude of wishes and ideas for the schoolyards, which both challenged and helped us planners. Some of the children suggested very specific play and exercise opportunities, which we were happy to incorporate into the planning. Finally, we discussed and agreed on the results of the participation with all parties involved, i.e. with the competent authorities as well as with the pupils. 

This participation also resulted in a successful student internship, in which an interested student helped to develop the parkour facility, because the originally desired skating facility could not be implemented for noise protection reasons. Both the limits of user participation and the possibilities of seeking alternatives in a productive way became apparent. Participation is thus always also a way of promoting young people! 



After the completion of the school playgrounds, we received several letters of thanks from the school. Enclosed with these letters were affectionate drawings by the pupils of their schoolyards. May such a nice thank you motivate not only us, but all those involved in such a project to continue to work towards creating inspiring places for pupils (and actors and musicians)!  



Facts about the project:

Client:                        Pankow District Office, Roads and Parks Department 

Services:                   Project planning, work stages 1-9

Funding:                   Urban preservation of historical monuments 

Planning and construction period:           2015 - 2018 

Construction sum:   € 1 million 

Area:                          53,820 ft2 

Landscape architecture firm:

Eva Zerjatke · Knut Honsell · Jens Henningsen

mail: info@henningsen-berlin.de


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