An erudite structure as pedagogy itself: The Reggio School in Madrid, Spain
by Jincy IypeApr 03, 2023
•make your fridays matter with a well-read weekend
by Anmol AhujaPublished on : Mar 04, 2022
Earmarked a “global” project in its scope, the Imagine Montessori School achieves a rare brand of distinction and balance in educational architecture intended for younglings. Infrastructure for children, especially schools and other educational institutions, have seen a recent shift in their design language - from an office-like functionality and frugal resourcefulness to one that actually involves a free architectural expression. Even in this kind of renewal, there exists a propensity to gear that aesthetic toward an obvious reflection of its users, through colours, shapes, and even iconification. While India still awaits such a renewal in this realm, the Imagine School by Spanish architects Carmel Gradolí and Arturo and Sanz is an undertaking that impressively defines cordiality in a school setting through rather ‘mature’ architectural discourse. The interesting question then that this architectural intervention raises, for me, is about the universality of good architecture irrespective of typology.
The building is located amid the residential strip of Valterna in Paterna, Valencia, and the En Dolça ravine. The architects here chose to retain the texture of the land caught between the built and unbuilt by avoiding excessive landscaping, and peppering the site with shrubbery instead of trimmed hedges. Roots, trunks, branches, dry leaves, pine cones, asparagus in spring, and wild mushrooms in autumn line the school’s exterior spaces, complemented by the torrential rushing of rainwater in the ravine. The unique location of the site begets a rather bold yet intelligent measure, of placing the site entrance towards the riverside instead of facing the city, potentially avoiding congestion along the arterial roads, while providing the students an avenue to enter their institution of learning with a sense of natural wonder. “Children do not disappear behind a wrought iron gate; there is a transition and a preparatory journey to get to school, and the city vanishes behind,” states the team at Gradolí & Sanz. Children now enter the school by crossing a pine forest through raised wooden walkways, peeking at the school through treetops. Meanwhile, the natural ravenous landscape also doubles up as a waiting and resting place for parents waiting to pick up their children. The ravine is thus incorporated into the project as a prime natural element, cited as the backbone of the territory.
The planning of the main school building occurs in a unitary manner, with each of the ‘units’ connected overarchingly in the form of an ‘S’ shape in plan. Each of the folds of the ‘S’ seemingly ensconces and configures an exterior space: the access plaza to the west through the ravines, and a playground to the east. This is based on the premise that two exterior spaces with two different orientations provide greater flexibility than a single space. The western side of the site, however, achieves a dominance in planning owing to the presence of the ravine, with each of the classrooms overlooking the natural feature and the pine forests. In fact, much in accordance with the principles of a Montessori school shunning formal teaching methods, the classrooms have no blackboards or teacher’s table, while the visual connection with nature is seen as the protagonist and driving force behind the learning process.
Students are given free access to all the five classrooms according to their interests, divided into the sensory area, practical life area, language area, maths area and cultural studies area. Each of the classrooms is entered into through a lobby with lockers and benches where the children can take off their shoes and remove their coats, earmarked by a considerably proportionate low-rise arch in the wall, tending to the scale of its users. This is further implemented in a number of nooks and small spaces spread through the project: lofts above the toilets in the classrooms, beneath the landings of the stairs, and next to windows at floor level prove to be sanctuaries for the young, curious mind, with the scale of the space perfectly complementing the younglings.
The fluid ‘S’ layout lends more than a meandering form on the outside, proving to be an exceptionally functional connector moving from one ‘cellular’ space to another. “The project grows like an organism, as each cell takes on its own shape according to its needs and then rejoins and interacts with the other cells,” remarks the design team. Each of the classrooms is further complemented externally by a covered terrace, a small amphitheatre, a fountain and a deciduous tree, a setting that is entirely enticing even for adults. Jovially, the deciduous tree is cited as an “additional classmate” for the kids, changing and flailing with the weather as the students directly interact with it. Furthermore, the school comes alive through the “in-between” spaces, shedding light on the considerable design measures imparted to even ancillary and circulatory spaces. Triple height vertical spaces, dubbed “solar collectors” are placed centrally to provide a visual cross-connection between classrooms. An agora facing the exterior rounds up this array of spaces.
Despite virtually every corner of the built project designed with a meticulous hand, the materiality is what imparts the project a neutral yet timeless appeal. Almost entirely composed of terracotta and wood, materials with a much smaller ecological footprint, with concrete limited only to foundations, and steel only in pillars and railings, the project professes a certain purity in expression. Sans plastering, false ceilings or floors, and panelling, the structure is held up by two-feet thick load bearing walls made with perforated brick, assuming the rich red appearance of terracotta, while being capped by a three-threaded solid brick vault. Echoing the same warm tonality, wood lines slatted panels on walls and the ceiling, along with the carpentry of doors and windows. “The building itself is the first didactic material of the school,” concludes the design team.
Visualised in a phased manner, the first phase of the Imagine Montessori School, featured here, comprises 10 classrooms, kitchen spaces, facilities, and storage spaces. The second phase will expand the facility to host a more expansive entrance along with administration spaces, teachers’ rooms, and meeting rooms.
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