Forest of the Mind: Toronto Montessori School, Richmond Hill, Ontario

Farrow Partners Architects designs a canopy-like school atrium that taps into insights gained from neuroscience.

An intricate structure, based on fractal patterns, is designed to appeal to the human brain’s attunement to complexity. Photo by Tom Arban

When children come into contact with nature, they reveal their strength,” wrote Maria Montessori in her treatise on children’s education, The Discovery of the Child. That guiding idea is at work in architect Tye Farrow’s new addition for the Toronto Montessori School, an independent school in Richmond Hill, north of downtown.

Farrow added a bow-shaped building to the front of the campus for preschool-to-grade-six students, framing a new courtyard learning garden studded with birch trees. Facing the parking lot, there’s a second garden, generously sized for caregivers and families to socialize after drop-off and pick-up. He worked with landscape architect John Quinn, who designed the gardens with native perennials, and used mounded forms that create a sense of shelter and enclosure.

But it’s inside, rather than outside, that Farrow’s interest in nature truly takes form. How can architecture go beyond the biophilic approach of using single elements like living walls, he asks, to engage the “experience and memory of mood, natural shapes, forms, and light?”

It’s a question that he’s been pursuing intuitively through architecture for decades, and more recently, through academic research. Last year, Farrow completed a Master of Neuroscience Applied to Architecture Design from the University of Venice IUAV, making him the first Canadian to obtain this degree. “We are living in what has been described as the ‘golden age’ of neuroscience research,” says Farrow, “which is leading to innovative ideas about how to live a fulfilling and healthful life, and the role our built environments play in this equation.”

Some of the insights he’s garnered are about why young brains thrive when kids are in natural environments. It turns out that neurons light up when we encounter the fractal patterns that are abundant in the natural world. Our brains are also stimulated in situations of “positive ambiguity”—places that are visually coherent, but that also have sufficient variety that we need to make sense of things.

In the showcase atrium of the school, Farrow put these principles to the test. The fractal-inspired structure alludes to the branches of a tree, with a purposefully complex combination of circular arches and triangular brise-soleil elements. The building’s radial plan gives the wood-beamed roof a slight asymmetry as it moves through the curve. Similarly, you enter the atrium under a line of skylights, set off from the central axis. Mirrors are placed above the fireplace and doors leading to administrative areas, bending the space further. “It’s about playing with perception in subtle ways that you may not perceive consciously,” says Farrow.

The intent of these manoeuvres is to create a space that intuitively feels good—a kind of interior counterpart to the Japanese practice of shirin-yoku, or forest bathing. Under the atrium’s canopy, students test the aerodynamics of paper airplanes, parents share news over morning coffee, and the community convenes in all-school assemblies.

All of the atrium’s structural elements are in wood, with steel connections concealed. Large green triangles, set above the courtyard-side openings, also allude to trees—and to the geometric shapes favoured in Montessori toys—but the space doesn’t pander to children. It has a sophisticated, peaceful feel that is a balm to brains of all ages.