Chinese ‘floating forest’ school named world’s best building at WAF 2023

Huizhen High School, designed in collaboration with the Zhejiang University of Technology Engineering Design Group, was crowned overall winner at WAF 2023, held in Singapore last week.

The boarding school in Ningbo City, a major port city in China’s northeastern Zhejiang province south of Shanghai, was described as a bold exploration of efficiency-first campus design where ‘time can be “wasted” seriously’.

The school’s campus features classrooms hung in each corner, joined by meandering paths and scattered treehouses to provide respite space from the classroom – all with views of nature.

Its gently sloping, ramp-accessed roof doubles up as an open-air lecture hall and park with sporting facilities open to the public at weekends, creating ‘a new typology of architectural promenade’, said the WAF jury.

Approach Design Studio architects have said the project was about ‘bringing the power of nature’ into the school building and designing a new school lifestyle.


Huizhen High School by Approach Design Studio and Zhejiang University of Technology Engineering Design Group

Studio director Di Ma explained: ‘We always try to explore the boundaries of architecture while making something that’s fun.

‘Our focus was not just about designing a school or working with new forms, spaces, materials and façades, but about designing new school life and bringing the power of nature into the building.

‘The building gives students a space to relax and relieve their stresses between their lessons.’

The WAF jury said it was impressed by how the design combined simple materials in a combination of the innovative and the every day, with elements that could be used for schools anywhere.  WAF programme director Paul Finch said: ‘We loved this building as it is unexpected, and delightful.

‘The architects have managed to create a school which is very different to the usual model where students are boxed in and put under teaching and architectural pressure.

‘By contrast, this design encourages walking, fresh air and the possibility of reflection away from academic intensity.

‘As the architects note, you are at your most relaxed when you are wasting time, but not wasting; instead enjoying walking to classrooms through a “floating forest” with plug-in buildings and amenities, all with views of nature.’

The 2023 jury included Peter Cook, Vicente Guallart of Spain’s Guallart Architects, founding director of WOHA architects Richard Hassell, and AKT II co-founder Albert Williamson-Taylor.


Huizhen High School by Approach Design Studio and Zhejiang University of Technology Engineering Design Group

Other winners at WAF included WAF Future Project: Experimental, which went to The Probiotic Tower in Cairo, a water tower with a large CO2-absobing algae bioreactor tank at its core, by Cairo-based Design and More International.

Meanwhile, the winner of the best mixed-use completed building was WilkinsonEyre with Battersea Power Station.

And Grimshaw won the best completed building in the Transport category for its Elizabeth Line design.