German firm Behnisch Architekten is no stranger to school design. Since 1996, the studio has established a growing portfolio of forward-thinking educational buildings. In Neuberg, a small town on the outskirts of Frankfurt, the Paul-Winter School is a vibrant new addition to this oeuvre. The 13,000-square-metre complex hosts 600 middle school students — and doubles as a community hub.
The school is sited at the southern edge of the city, near the Sternschanze fort. This historic context — and the site’s natural topography, which slopes 28 metres from northwest to southeast — served as inspiration for its design. Harmoniously interwoven with the varied rural terrain, the complex is described by the architects as a “sculpted landscape for learning and physical activity.”
The building is comprised of individual “houses” for each grade level (a principle Behnisch Architekten also explored in its design of the Gotthard-Müller School), and ancillary programs that alternate with exterior courtyards to ensure greenery is accessible from the entire building. These elements are unified by, and organized around, a central circulation corridor conceived as a “street” — made of exposed concrete and stone — that runs from indoors to outdoors, enhancing the relationship with the surrounding context.
The complex, including school buildings, sports facilities, parking and green spaces is carefully integrated into the slope of the site, with barrier-free access at the various levels to ensure inclusivity. The building’s horizontality enables unobstructed views over the fields, while its untreated timber cladding and wooden canopies allow it to blend seamlessly into the golden landscape. The façade of wood and glass comprises both clear and opaque panels for a playful look, yet is predominantly transparent to create the impression of an open learning environment. Industrial zinc-plated steel balconies add to this sense of transparency.
The main entrance is accessed via a large courtyard at the centre of the school, which features outdoor canteen seating. In the double-height foyer, a stepped auditorium hosts assemblies, parent meetings, lectures and performances. With a raw concrete ceiling and floors, sunny yellow accent walls, and acoustic wall cladding that echoes the timber façade, the contemporary communal space warmly welcomes students into the complex. Also on the ground floor, a cafeteria, a teaching kitchen, an outdoor herb garden and science and technology labs, each located in a separate wing, protrude into the landscape like “green fingers.”
From the sociable ground floor, students can access the individual “houses” on the second and third levels. Each unit comprises classrooms and multi-purpose rooms for one grade, organized around a “marketplace” which can be used for activities and events to foster connections among classes. Mobile partitions and flexible furnishings enable the area to adapt depending on its use. Meanwhile, inside the classrooms, study niches cordoned off by rotating double-sided whiteboards enable teachers to facilitate small group instruction for individualized support.
Pitched roofs with clerestory windows imbue the spaces with natural light and also incorporate photovoltaics (just one of the building’s sustainable features, which also include an upgraded ventilation system). Art studios, workshops, administration offices, a library and a daycare round out the upper floors. Throughout the interior, pops of vivid colour act as a wayfinding device, helping students orient themselves within the complex.
At the westernmost end of the site, the two-court gymnasium is partially submerged into the terrain, with the outdoor sports areas located above, opening out to the landscape. Elsewhere in the schoolyard, terraced benches meld into the sloping landscape, serving as bleachers for school events — and a popular hangout spot between classes. This focus on social spaces, alongside academic ones, makes the Paul-Winter School not just an inspiring place to learn, but a space to build community.
The Paul-Winter School, designed by Behnisch Architekten, is centred around a circulation “street” that fosters community and connection to its rural context.