Ronald S. Lauder School.
part of Shalom educational complex
clientSHALOM Organization of Jews in Bulgaria
usersPreschool through high school students, teachers, staff and community members
Our roles in this project were multiple. Firstly, аs authors of the design brief, Shalom entrusted us to represent the community with its goals and priorities, and act as consultants to the architects who designed the building. We helped in defining the final functional program of the building and the location of certain critical zones such as the library.
Аs designers, we created the interior design of the building. For this ambitious task we partnered with 5Аrchitects who worked on the interior design of the Cultural center, while we focused our expertise on the School, Kindergarten, Library and Sports halls. Coordination between the two studios was essential to achieve a coherent building with seamless transitions through the spaces.
Another important aspect of our work was the early incorporation and coordination with a graphic designer to develop the wayfinding concept of this complex building from an early stage, as well as a very important layer of the building: a visual narrative, which binds the three buildings together and roots the Bulgarian Jewish traditions and identity in the physical space.
Finally, we continued our role as “translators” between the architects and the community: keeping the users of the building in the loop, taking their constant feedback and thus influencing and tailoring the design to their needs, so that in a few years time, they can enter not just a newbuilding, but rather their home.
In the following paragraphs, we focus on our role as the interior designers.
The new school building of the Jewish community in Sofia should be a space shared by students, teachers and the community with joy and excitement. The project’s goal is to stimulate possibilities for communication and interaction between different generations: spaces for socialization, with coworking and play activities incorporated throughout the building which is open not only for students of different ages, but also for all people from the community: parents, madrichim, elderly people, kindergarten children.
Several challenges regarding the school building stood out during the ideation workshops with the community:
- How might we turn the school into a trendy and cozy space where kids and teens love to spend their free time?
- How could we "limit" the little ones in their space, and stimulate the older ones to move through the entire building?
- How might we transform the Library from a dull and silent storage place and discipline to a lively hub for book lovers of all ages?
- How might we inspire interest in the students for their past and create a sense of rootedness in their traditions?
Ronald S. Lauder School is part of the Nursery, Kindergarten, School and Jewish Center complex and spreads through 4 levels above and two levels below ground. It has ample foyers and common spaces, 19 learning studios, two STEAM hubs with makerspaces, a Library, two gyms and a canteen. It is connected to the Kindergarten and Jewish center ensuring that the users of the three buildings have multiple meeting points.
Although they are part of one complex, and more importantly, belong to the same community, the Kindergarten, School, and Jewish center are fundamentally different. A design suitable for toddlers greatly differs from one which would be adequate and functional for teenagers or elderly people. Moreover, these three buildings have visual connections: one can directly peek inside the school from the Kindergarten and Jewish center and vice versa. This is why those shared zones had to be well thought through. A general challenge for them was set: “How might we achieve design cohesion between the three buildings using the common spaces?”
We devised a set of common guidelines for the materials used in the common spaces where the three buildings meet. The team settled on using stone in the representative areas and the predominant use of wood in the community’s gathering spaces. Colored glass elements would be used as interior accents. The ceilings, columns, and walls would be predominantly white and discreet. The Jewish and Bulgarian elements would be subtly present in the photos of the community, centerpieces designed by local artists, and predominantly by the people enlivening and аnimating the spaces.
Most school foyers are small lobbies that exist just to extend into corridors and get people as fast as possible into the boxlike classrooms of the past. Ronald S. Lauder school’s foyer serves a greater purpose. It greets everyone and sets the right welcoming and energetic tone of how a great school should feel like – as a community. The space is carefully crafted so that the foyer serves successfully as a multifunctional area. It is buzzing with life: students enter and quickly find their way to the learning spaces on the different levels through stairs and elevators.
Visitors could have a rest in cozy seats or go upstairs and visit the Library. Parents pick up their children at the lobby where they can have conversations with their teachers over a cup of tea. It holds an information desk, a snack bar, and a medical and dentist office with a shared waiting area. However, the vibrant life of the foyer is anchored by its most prominent feature – the grand amphitheater.
The main entrance leads to a spacious lobby that extends into a two-level atrium space. Inside the atrium is the most imposing feature of the foyer – the grand amphitheater. It is much more
than a staircase. In fact, the entire school community can sit together for celebrations and important events thanks to the stage right in front of it. It has a large hidden screen, a backstage, and a small stand for the performer. Together with the equipment, the acoustic treatment of the ceiling allows for both big and small presentations, school plays, and discussions to take place without interfering with the other processes in the building.
“Library - Amphitheater - Entrance - Canteen” axis
There is a symbolic meaning in the fact that the grand amphitheater ascends directly into the Library, paying tribute to the significant place of books in the Jewish cultural tradition. Its
position and material treatment are no accident: the fine golden brass thread climbs up the stairs into the Library to emphasize its importance. The thread is engraved with texts from the building’s narrative that refer to the Library space.
In the opposite direction, the golden thread leads into another significant space that bears an important role in Jewish tradition concerning food - the canteen. Thanks to a wide folding glass
door, the lobby and canteen can be united and meetings or holiday celebrations can be extended between both spaces.
The school foyer connects other essential spaces on the first floor. The two STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arta and Maths) centers are located on the school’s first floor: one is for the little students from primary school and one for secondary and high school. Both are visible from the lobby. Thanks to the full-height windows, visitors and students can observe the unique learning spaces that showcase real-time hands-on learning in science laboratories, art studios and maker spaces.
Underneath the amphitheater
This small place is unexpectedly full of life and diversity. Handwritten messages from students, holiday greetings, and drawings come to life on the greeting wall on the side of the amphitheater. This wall, treated with special paint, allows students to write and create on it. In addition, there are several colored brick “keyholes” that would enable everyone to take a peek at the hidden spaces on the other side. One of the keyholes peeks into the hidden treasure underneath the amphitheater - a small sensory room. It is quiet, cozy, and soft - ready to accommodate anyone who wants to escape the noise and fuss. Inside, colorful bricks shed beautiful highlights, tactile touch pads stick to the wall and floor, and comfortable swings hang from the ceiling. This private space is truly meditative. The full control over the sound and light in the area makes the secret room perfect for children with special educational needs. All students can use the sensory room when they need to: alone or with their teacher or psychologist.
A lighting installation with custom-made iridescent glass fixtures balances the imposing
nature of the foyer and creates a more childlike atmosphere. They give playful light reflections
and highlights on the floor and walls, making the space unique at any given moment.
Their shape is reminiscent of a flock of birds and a distant reference to Shalom’s dove symbol.
They are also inspired by the colored glass elements present in the grand chandelier
inside the Sofia Synagogue.
The Colored Glass Keyholes
The peek holes are small openings in the walls, filled with colored glass bricks, inspired
by the treatment of the glass doors in the Sofia Synagogue. They provide a peek into hidden
parts of the building like the Kindergarten’s gym, the preschool area, the nursery, or
the secret room under the amphitheater. The keyholes are a playful invitation for people’s
curiosity. They are intentionally placed at the small children’s eye level.
The classroom is a home for students on their 12-year journey at school. Typically, it is a basic rectangular box that provides teacher-centered learning: lecturing from the front of the room
while students sit on uncomfortable chairs with open notebooks. There is no variety, flexibility, or comfort in that space. The main purpose of Ronald S. Lauder School is to be both teacher-enabling and learner-centered. This aim requires a different architectural response. That’s why we provide learning studios instead of classrooms. A learning studio is an articulated L-shaped space that gives a broader range of learning scenarios. To be “articulated”, one room should allow students to be independent and safe, respect their privacy, and enable different study modes (lecture, group work, individual, and hands-on learning) so everyone could feel comfortable. Primary-age students usually spend more time in their home bases. In contrast, older students are more mobile and have access to facilities in other parts of the school that could not fit in their learning studio.
The Common spaces are not just corridors you go through on the way to the classroom, but a wide variety of spots to meet friends, move, study, observe, prepare and explore. These spaces facilitate active play and social interactions, and can enable class extensions. As the students grow up, their learning studios transform and gradually blend in with the Commons.
The reference point of every Common space is a Tree, whose shape and functions change climbing through the floors as the students get older. It welcomes the little ones and invites them to play, climb and explore, turns into a free zone for climbing and socializing for the 10-12 year-old- students and transforms into a high seating area for group work for the high-schoolers.
Learning happens not only in the classroom, but also here. Students are individuals with different personalities and learning preferences, and the space follows and adapts to their learning needs. Apart from the open spaces for group work, socializing and play, the Commons have multiple nooks for silent studies, quiet reading and work. Teachers also have a place in the Commons - the study nooks are perfect for class preparations with colleagues or individual check-ins with students.
The Common spaces on the second floor are focused on play and movement for the little ones: swings, bumps on the floor, balancing barns, amphitheaters, and a cinema.
On the third floor where the older students are based, the Commons offer a variety of spaces to develop their unique interests: a green room for shooting videos and vlogs, different nooks and library corners for quiet immersion, an exhibition area for works of art, and for the future public speakers - two large opposing amphitheaters for loud debates.
The fourth floor is the teenager’s territory where the design enables freedom: where and how to learn, how to enhance and manifest your creativity and your beliefs. A key common space is the Free piazza: the heart of the floor with an edgy industrial design, that fosters a tech hub, library and lots of free walls for art and drawing. A cozy amphitheater at the back ensures gatherings and time spent together.
Another focal point in the commons is the Student’s bar, managed by the high-schoolers themselves: a place that stretches the boundaries of traditional learning and through experiences and real life projects prepares the next generation of entrepreneurs.
The library as a social hotspot
In recent years, libraries are no longer our primary source of knowledge and information. However, they are still relevant: they should be public spaces accessible to everyone.
In the case of Shalom educational complex, the Library is the heart that binds the three buildings together: The School, Kindergarten and Jewish center meet here physically and symbolically. This is a place for books, but also people: a social hotspot and an inspiring place, where all ages unleash their imagination, inspiration, and playful behavior: a grandmother reads comfortably in an" oversized soft chair, surrounded by a group of children from the Kindergarten with eyes wide open.
On the other end, two friends unfold the new issue of their favorite magazine over coffee and identify the hot topics. A business meeting takes place at the table next to them. Deaf to the world around him, behind a fortress of accumulated books, a doctoral student notes the final words of his thesis. A group of nine-year-olds is streaming YouTube videos of hacks of the latest trending game, lying on the scattered puffs on the floor. Next to them, five eighth-graders are having a debate on great civilizations, pointing vigorously at a considerable mass of books, notes, and drawings. They have even built a paper model of a Roman aqueduct on that same table. Deeply immersed in an armchair with giant headphones on, a jazz fan observes the passing of life at the Library. A freelancer sends his last email for the day, sitting in the back. Throughout the entire Library, a soft hum buzzes. It comes from the Beit Midrash and livens up all the spaces, giving them color and distinctive energy. This is the atmosphere that the multifunctional design enables.
The atrium space ties together the two “loud” and “quiet” floors of the library, and the STEAM space underneath. It bathes the space in light and brings visibility to the different zones. Apart from the reading areas, ranging from large spaces for group work to small individual reading nooks, there is a Tech corner with a streaming game area and audio capsule and a Library Cafe. A special place in the Library is the “Baby to baba” corner where grandparents sit down and read books to small children.
The Beit Midrash
The centerpiece of the entire Library is unquestionably the Beit Midrash - the Heart of Jewish tradition and learning, a statement of continuity and a symbol of community. This is a loud space, where learning happens through debating and opposing different points of view, questioning the texts from the books and reaching a state of “buzzing life”. Here, learning happens in a particular way, regardless of context and time and the outer world doesn’t exist. The focus is on the books, the people, and the silent hum, filling the space and fueling its surroundings.
The buzzing Beith Midrash is visible from all of the main entrances of the Library. Thanks to its position right next to the atrium, its presence can be noted from all three floors. If the Library is the Heart of the building, the Beit Midrash is certainly its centerpiece. To emphasize its intricate meaning, its walls are semi-transparent: they separate the Beit Midrash from the space but at the same time blend it in with a double library with a fine metal mesh. That way, the exciting noise fills the whole space, all throughout its three levels and connects the people. Mirrors in the ceiling continue the bookshelves to infinity and twist the perceptions of space.
The atrium’s role is symbolic: it casts light over the Library so that it shines through the building. Its railing passes through the three floors, the staircase, and the amphitheater. It is white and delicate, focusing the attention on the books, the people, and their activities.
From the front, the railing is see-through, and its pieces resemble the cords of a musical instrument. At the side of the Beit Midrash, it reaches the floor’s total height. This detail emphasizes the Beit Midrash’s location. It has a symbolic role: the cords spread the Voice of the Torah throughout the entire space, making it alive and exciting. The railing changes visually due to its vertical pieces, made from thin metal sheets as seen from the side. While moving, the view
towards the atrium continually changes, hiding some parts of the space and revealing others. This minimalistic approach creates a “visual buzz” around the area, harmonizing with the loud
sound of the Beit Midrash.
STEAM is an abbreviation from Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Mathematics – a learning approach where subjects are taught holistically, in a hands-on and playful manner. The STEAM hub is a place for science, experiments, arts, and creativity and thus the space is ample and visible, blurring the borders between the laboratory, robotics hub, makerspace, dance zone, recording studios and exhibition areas.
The secondary and high school STEAMs are open and flexible spaces where students can experience the arts and sciences, collaborate with each other, deliver presentations and tell stories, create podcasts and vlogs, develop videos and stream them. But they are not just for students: all of the members of the community are invited to share this space together – grandparents can teach children sewing, wood handling or playing a musical instrument, whereas the students can demonstrate their programming and assembly skills in a robotics race in the exhibition area.
The spaces are inspired by the “Garage” and “Cyber punk” style to invite people to be open-minded and not to worry about creating a mess. This is the place where people of all generations come to build together and celebrate the creative spirit in all of its forms.
The space consists of an art and science lab with plenty of work areas and storage space. Adjacent to it is the makerspace with two separate zones - one for heavy-duty machinery and work and a co-working zone for assembling fintech. A visual connection to the foyer raises the curiosity of passers-by and invites them to join the creative process.
A centerpiece of the STEAM space is a grand amphitheater - the second biggest after the one in the foyer and with а similar goal: to gather people and share their creativity and experience. Around the amphitheater is a place for the arts: a large exhibition area, a music room, a dance corner, a TV and recording studio and a dark room. The concrete flooring and corrugated metal sheets and the neon lighting bring a sense of creative anarchy to the entire space.
The large gym is located on two levels underground and is a state-of-the-art sports hall: its colors are calm and all of the materials used are natural: wood and concrete.
The only exception is the special sports flooring. The area is filled with natural light, which descends beautifully from the light wells. Lighting rings, adjacent to the wells, provide accent lighting in the evening. In that way, everyone feels the space’s vastness despite being underground. The light color of the special sports flooring is the perfect blank canvas on which sports talents can shine. The different brightly colored sports outlines on the floor distinguish different sports. A delicate wooden cladding frames the actual sports zone. The calm atmosphere is supported by acoustic ceilings and walls that absorb the excess noise and guarantee a perfect sound for any event.
The ample free space and height allow basketball matches, tennis, mini football, and volleyball tournaments to be held in the large gym. When the gym is not used for big games, the space can be divided into 3 separate playing fields so that student teams can practice three different sports simultaneously.
If the foyer is the heart, the Canteen is the **soul of the school **and maybe even the entire complex celebrating the Jewish traditions of cooking together, the diversity of flavors, ancient Sephardic recipes, and of course - kosher food. This space welcomes students for everyday lunch or breakfast, parents and guests for special school events, and the whole community for holiday celebrations or Shabbat dinners. Its color palette is inspired by these gatherings and expresses the joy of life: tender peach, sky blue, and joyful yellow, combined with the green colors of the indoor plants located throughout the space. A golden brass thread on the floor starts from the Library, continues through the foyer, and ends here, linking these three most significant spaces.
The canteen’s height covers two levels, and its walls are almost entirely glazed, making the space abundant with natural light. On the second level, from the Kindergarten’s gym, the toddlers can observe the student’s life there through wide interior windows.
The eating space is spacious, welcoming, and versatile. A cozy washing area with colorful sinks, big mirrors, and hanging lighting fixtures greets students at the entrance.
The furniture selection revolves around the concept of children and teenagers having ownership of their space and being able to rearrange it as they wish. To eliminate the typical school canteen perception: 150 identical chairs and tables, organized in rows with a feeling of sadness dominating the space, we introduced a diversity in the seating. Comfortable chairs, couches, bar stools, and cozy nooks give a cheerful mood to the entire space.
To support the student-centered learning environment present in the entire school, the canteen can be used for individual study and team collaboration throughout the school day, in accordance with the project-based and integrated model of learning. Integrated technology gives constant access to a wireless network for class projects and research. Students can take care of different varieties of plants and herbs, creating links to nutrition,healthy eating and biology.
Their knowledge deepens at the centerpiece of the canteen: the Learning kitchen lab, where science and chemistry intertwine with food and tradition. The Kitchen lab is open not only to students, but also to toddlers, who come and bake little challahs on Shabbat - a favorite tradition from the Kindergarten. The wide kitchen island has two heights so that everyone can independently and comfortably prepare their own meals. All essential instruments are fully visible and hanging on the walls of this learning zone so that students can reach them on their own. The emphasis on the space is placed by the hanging vegetation above the kitchen island.
Inspired by the Balkan Jewish legacy, the space’s walls are inscribed with Ladino recipes that have been preserved for generations in the community.
Besides being a place for eating, a multifunctional area for ongoing learning, collaboration or chatting with friends, the canteen is a place for community gatherings, celebrations and passing on the traditions to future generations. A true soul of the building.
- 5Architects – Jewish center interior design
- Mana studio – visualizations
- Aglika Spassova – wayfinding and visual narrative concept
- IPA – architectural design