What’s in a school, who should it serve and how? Architecture critic and publisher Andreas Ruby weighs up the pros and cons of an architecture school building conceived as a didactic tool vs. a functional blank canvas with two recent projects in France and Albania.
You would think that designing an architecture school would be a dream project for any architect, but actually it is quite tricky since a decision needs to be made quite early on about whether the building should be a place to learn in or also to learn from. The latter option seems a natural choice – to use the building as a didactic device and design it as a showcase for good architecture. But then, ideas of what is good and beautiful have a tendency to change over time – just think of the eighties. Thus an architecture school intended to represent the crème de la crème of the discipline can easily wind up as a period piece, a functional mess and aesthetic embarrassment for those who have to study in that building for decades to come.
So there are good reasons to discharge an architecture school building of any didactic mission and conceive it simply as a spatial enabler of educational activities, nothing more, nothing less. But is that even possible? Can an architect make a building that is not a statement in one way or another? Let’s look at two recent architecture school projects that represent opposing approaches. For brevity’s sake let’s call them the “cool” and the “hot”.
The École d’Architecture de Nantes by Lacaton & Vassal, completed in 2009, is a prime example of the cool attitude. The architects have no didactic mission to tell, but use a very basic observation as their starting point: the fact that every architecture school they knew invariably runs out of space quickly. Hence they simply multiplied the surface area defined in the competition brief by the factor two, complementing the required programme area to absorb any future spatial needs. To achieve this considerable extension without exceeding the given budget they use a type of construction normally used for parking garages: an arrangement of extra strong concrete floor plates (1000 kg/m² load capacity) and generous ceiling heights between seven and 12 metres.
This primary structure is partially filled with smaller volumes housing each programme, while the remaining free space is left unprogrammed. If this building has any architectural message to the students, it is “Use me!” It does not give a catalogue of solutions as to how to work with different materials nor does it revel in the fetish of daring details. Lacaton & Vassal obviously see the value of architecture less in the object of the building and more in the spectrum of appropriations that it enables.
The hot attitude is perfectly illustrated by the recently completed Epoka University Student Centre in Tirana, Albania. The project was actually designed in two phases and by two different teams. The general concept of the building was made by the Istanbul-based office Zambak, but the entire interior architectural design and detailing was done by CoRDA, the school’s own architecture office. It is run by a number of professors from the faculty who, together with students and recent graduates, do actual construction projects as part of the school’s educational curriculum. In other words, this architecture school was designed by the very people who work in it. CoRDA used this unique opportunity to turn the building into an architectural treatise featuring commendable architectural techniques for the students to learn from.
Andreas Ruby is an architecture critic, curator, moderator, teacher and publisher. He has taught architectural theory and design at a number of institutions worldwide including: Cornell University, École Nationale Supérieure d’Architecture Paris Malaquais, the Metropolis Program Barcelona and Umea School of Architecture. Aside from his contributions to selected international architecture magazines, he has published nearly 20 books on contemporary architecture. In 2008 he co-founded the architecture publishing house Ruby Press.
The images of the Architecture School in Nantes by Simon Menges were shot for the publication University building in France – Nantes School of Architecture, edited by Ilka & Andreas Ruby, pub. Holcim Foundation, Zürich, 2011.
For instance, the floor of the main hall is realised in coloured pieces of marble laid out in figurative patterns, which oscillate between flat and spatial effects, depending on where you stand – a kind of Escher for beginners. The interior walls are made of bricks laid in various ways to expose all their different faces to the viewer. Thus you actually get to see the brick as a three-dimensional object, which in turn transforms the wall into an exciting plastic relief. Other details of the building, such as doors, suspended ceilings and windows, are treated as examples of how to design and build those elements. This didactic approach makes particular sense in a country such as Albania, where there are not a lot of architecturally outstanding public buildings that students could learn from. Completed in 2013 the building is already a landmark of contemporary architecture and has garnered international attention through publications and awards.
These examples seem to suggest that there is no set rule as to whether an architecture school building should be hot or cool; it depends in many ways on the physical and educational context of the school. Both buildings discussed here make perfect sense in their respective environments, and their polarity is inspiring. Maybe the two establishments should exchange their students and faculties each year for a detox summer school? p