Roman Type: Lying low in a Roman suburb, Herman Hertzberger’s I Mosaici school offers a flexible new alternative to traditionalist Italian pedagogy
Driving south of Rome, leaving behind the intensity of the monumentalised city, tenement-lined boulevards give way to freeway sprawl, the hills of Frascati appear in the distance and a new residential district marks the edge of urban development.
Here, a radical new school by Herman Hertzberger and Marco Scarpinato awaits − although my taxi driver is finding it hard to locate. We circle past a children’s playground, and a lay-by where a van acts as a convenience store. It is a nascent urban space, the kind of place where any civic gesture is welcome. I tell the driver this must be it, but he says no, it can’t be. Where is the school?
Winner of an international competition, Hertzberger later tells me how extraordinary it was for the Italian authorities to allow foreigners to share in the making of a new type of school. Collaborating with Marco Scarpinato, the design evolved as a series of single- and two-storey interlocking blocks coming off a central spine, each with a courtyard to act as a future garden and learning space.
This assemblage will be surrounded by a stepped landscape, so that the school in turn will be overlooked by terraced seating where children might come together and learn (a signature Hertzberger move), and to that end the school has been placed in an excavated hollow set down from street level. Two identical entrances on either side of the block cater for the different age groups, and in the future, when the grounds are completed, a connection will hopefully make the sports facilities publically available.
With 10 primary and six secondary classrooms at present, it is designed to expand over time as the local population increases, and provides accommodation based on the concept of flexible connections between classroom and classroom, classroom and circulation space, and classroom and outside − with exterior teaching a critical component. Hertzberger’s proposal to open up and liberate the plan and to blur boundaries may appear less innovative than other recent schools, but in Italy it is radical.
Inevitably the project was challenged by the change in Italy’s economic circumstances. The unfinished landscape is testament to this frustration: the rhetoric in the competition was to make the school feel accessible without needing to resort to grand solutions, and indeed the model for the school shows a continuous flowing landscape where the public realm merges with the playground as an urban meeting place − like the remarkable Im Birch School by Peter Märkli in Zurich.
Unfortunately this generosity of public spirit seems difficult to export outside Switzerland, and here the school is surrounded by a long fence. This does little to differentiate the flat-roofed school beyond, which sits so low in the ground that the facade barely registers in between the five-storey housing blocks.
In order to enter, visitors must go down a huge flight of nearly 20 steps that are undeniably monumental − all the time wishing perhaps that one might just be permitted to go straight ahead, where children can be seen playing outside the first-floor classrooms. We share the same eye level but cannot meet.
‘Hertzberger’s radical nature lies less in physical form than at the level of breaking down preconceptions about social interaction’
The introduction of this descending entrance is perhaps a reference to Roman archaeology (as suggested by Scarpinato), or has arisen from necessary site decontamin-ation (surely this is not necessary to such a dramatic degree?), but either way it is ironic that it is entirely excavated when the existing landscape is completely flat. It is more surprising still that there is no obvious step-free access to the school, and it takes persistence to register a remote small side gate leading to a ramp. One’s heart goes out to parents arriving with young children in pushchairs, or students on bicycles, let alone disabled people.
I wonder, where does this disregard for some types of user stem from, when I was anticipating the sense of inclusivity for which Hertzberger is so widely known? When I ask him, he explains that he ‘likes the movement of the steps going down as it is the opposite of the monumentality of going up − it is against the plinth in Western culture’ − disregarding the issue of inclusivity.
But happily, having reached the lower ground floor, a world of familiar openness and delight does indeed lie in abundance within the building, even if it is hard to find on the street. From within the foyer, against a simple backdrop of plaster, exposed concrete and grey metal-framed glazing, there are views of courtyards beyond, of the open circulation spaces running the length of the school and of daylight dappling the floor.
The combination of horizontal slot windows to the outside world and glazed corners to classrooms allows glimpses in, out of and through rooms in a layering of people and architecture. At a grander scale the structural grid breaks down to reveal a large dining room with vast sliding screens that open it onto the spinal route, and then a theatre carved out from the ground at one end, which clearly acts as the heart of the school. It feels interconnected yet calm.
There were challenges brought about by these cultural differences of bringing together a liberal architecture based on informality with the more traditional pedagogy of Italian education. Hertzberger’s plan is informed by layers and transparency: ‘Compare walls, walls, walls with glass, glass, glass. I am convinced the modern school should include social education, the children should get along together, help each other, have discussions with each other.’ And he still advocates, as in his projects from over the last 40 years, that the building needs its inhabitants to determine its mode of use: ‘the challenge is about how to anticipate and to not be neutral.’
From the outside it is hard to differentiate between spaces for young children and those for teenagers, as there is no obvious progression or scalar adjustment to acknowledge this transition. The thought of having to occupy exactly the same type of room from a young age through to being a teenager seems a little stern or even ungenerous, and here Hertzberger’s notion of architecture as a universal framework seems to lack sensitivity to the diverse needs of different users who share the same space.
Is this refusal of differentiation in case it is read as exclusive? Is this conundrum at the heart of public architecture? That to make something work for everyone − to refuse an architecture that acknowledges hierarchy, that is calibrated to particular needs, or that responds representationally to its context − inevitably means that people at either end of the spectrum suffer from having less than satisfactory accommodation, or in environments that under-perform at an urban scale? Likewise, eschewing the representational role of architecture as an act of communication underplays the role that it can play in bringing delight and discovery to its users. I wonder how many chance encounters will happen in a public building so hidden from view?
Notable, too, in this age of the individual as opposed to the collective, and the digital versus the concrete, is the absence of an informal, self-led type of learning inside the classrooms that northern Europeans take for granted. Without computers and set out in regimented rows, children learn irrespective of their age − so that the youngest children do not have role-play areas, or the older ones access to laptops. This rigidity is something that Hertzberger keenly acknowledges is not to his liking, noting that ‘Italians have a different culture of learning.’ But he is optimistic about the future, as for him it will evolve: ‘it is important to see structure as a matrix of all things that come next.’
On the day I visit, children in the auditorium listen excitedly to Hertzberger explain where the idea for their school came from, and how he would like to see it used. They clap and stamp their feet in delight as he asks the city authority to complete the project by providing large tables in the courtyard that will take advantage of the canopy shadows, around which individuals could gather to work on their own projects in the company of others − ‘the big table as a representation of family, of debate, as social binding’.
This is a subtle shift in preconceptions, and perhaps a demonstration that Hertzberger’s radical nature lies less in physical form or urban territories, or even at a material scale, but more at the level of breaking down preconceptions about social interaction.
To question why schools in Italy do not yet commonly ‘claim the climate for learning’, as he proposes, is a deft transposition of a common feature of everyday domestic life (what Italian does not take advantage of a shaded outdoor terrace, whenever possible?) to the scale of the institutional. The legacy of Hertzberger is laid out here when one remembers how subtle, but critical, his influence on architecture has been. Aside from the manifesto architecture of revolutionaries that recast society structurally, few architects in the 20th century have taken the time to ask these disarmingly simple questions about how a social landscape might evolve, and to draw reference persistently from real life rather than imagined notions. Despite this, the feedback from users is tremendous, and in the spirit of Hertzberger the building aims to let inhabitants interpret and customise its spaces to their own needs.
To this extent, the city client says that Hertzberger has set a challenge to the teachers to reinvent every activity, and the new headteacher says she feels repressed by old schools now, instead finding the new school − with the continuum of inside and outside − reassuring, and representing openness. The sense of optimism is palpable, and even the politicians become enthused, with the deputy leader of parliament saying the project is about empowering children to feel at home, to unleash their potential.
I Mosaici School, Herman Hertzberger in Rome
Architects: Herman Hertzberger and Marco Scarpinato
Underfloor heating: Rehau
Lavatories and flooring: Marazzi
Photographs: Herman van Doorn