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Plain Speaking

Set on an Alpine floodplain, this new teaching workshop for Swiss construction students embodies an exemplary rigour and sobriety

Lapped by the waters of Lake Maggiore and surrounded by vineyards and the foothills of the Alps, Gordola is a picturesque medieval town in the Ticino, Switzerland’s Italian-speaking canton. Behind the idyll, however, lies a postwar, car-centric sprawl of single-family houses and shopping centres. And like all towns, Gordola’s messy periphery is an architecture-free zone, with flimsy plastic tunnels for hothouse farming and functional buildings accommodating a modest level of industry. It is also where the Ticino branch of the Società Svizzera Impresari Costruttore (Swiss Society of Building Trades) has its training centre, a set of uninspiring 1970s buildings that needed new workshops.

There are a number of challenges in designing for such a place. There are issues of an appropriate architectural expression for the periphery, but also the practical problems of building in an alluvial flood plain that has spongy soil and a high water table. Some of the competition entries from 2004 relied on berms or on the building itself acting as a dam. However, the winning scheme by Massagno-based Durisch + Nolli Architetti had the idea of raising the building to let the flood waters (as well as the prevailing winds) pass underneath it. This was the first of what became characteristically straightforward (though not always obvious) choices that engender a subtle play between object and building and make poetry out the rigour of keeping it simple.

The building defines one edge of the site to create a campus with a large central space used for training on heavy machinery. A 400mm-thick concrete slab is supported by 68 slender columns, each on its own foundation. The 6m-high undercroft is used for parking and storage. On this 140m-long plinth sits what is, essentially, a machine for learning in, its design driven by strict programmatic and ergonomic constraints.

Everything is stripped down and optimised for clarity and purpose. Three staircases lead directly to a door and then a corridor. Exactly in the middle of the corridor you either turn left to enter the changing rooms and through to the workshops, or go upstairs to the classrooms. Spaces in the circulation block are single-storey, while those of the workshops, for woodworking, metalwork and the sanitary trades, are double-height, with large sliding doors for the delivery of materials. Workshops are arranged on a 3m module and are either 27m or 33m long.

Construction is similarly rational. The three two-storey blocks are concrete framed and slotted in to the long bar take up the shear from the lightweight steel structure of the sheds. They have glass walls to partition the space, acoustic insulation attached to the ceiling, where necessary, and saw-tooth skylights facing north, which give the building its jagged, factory-like profile. Exposed services and a polished concrete floor screed turn the spaces into a teaching resource by showing how they are made.

Likewise, the building form appears to do only what it needs to; for example, the unadulterated profile of the roof pops up to accommodate the upper-level classrooms. The entire long, thin volume is wrapped in and unified by a homogenous metal skin. Minimising materials helped to reduce cost and construction time, and at CHF18 million (£12.75 million) for a 9,328m² building, costs were lower than average, even for such a modest structure.

There is a subtle poetry, however, that arises from such prosaic concerns and functional solutions. For instance, the large number of columns enables both columns and slab to be reduced in size. The column line is also set back from the edge so that the slab appears to float.

The stairs that lead directly to the door also lead to a corridor that slices through the building with a glass door at the end, drawing your gaze towards the lake. A handful of square windows frame views of the outside without creating a distraction, while the building is circumscribed by a deck, from which students and staff can enjoy unmediated views of the lake, foothills and mountains.

The building form is also handled with an eye for rigour. The single volume, serrated roof and metal skin obviously refer to the existing industrial buildings of Gordola’s periphery, but also to the factories in which some of the students will eventually work. The architects play it totally straight; not for them the distortions of form and skin in the similarly shed-like and saw-toothed Liner Museum in Appenzell by Gigon/Guyer Architekten (AR August 2000). But that does not mean the Gordola building is without sophistication.

The apparently seamless skin suggests serious intent. With its lack of visible gutters, drainpipes and accoutrements of the services engineer (the building is naturally ventilated), the structure loses its scale. While it at first seems monumental (recalling Hans Hollein’s ‘aircraft carrier city’ in the Alps of 1964), on second glance it looks like an industrial object: like something sitting on a workbench. It is no small feat to make such straightforward architecture or to maintain a sense of precision throughout an entire building.

The great wave of Swiss architecture over the last 15 years has almost exclusively been from German-speaking Switzerland, but though this bears all the hallmarks of Swiss German sobriety and refinement, it is a project from the Italian south. Pia Durisch and Aldo Nolli both worked in Calatrava’s office in the early 1980s, and Durisch also worked for Peter Zumthor.

They both seem to have absorbed Zumthor’s sensitivity for materials and construction, rather than Calatrava’s bombast, but as an investigation of reductivism and typological rigour, their building also alludes to the famous era of Ticinese Neorationalism, which was such an important regional force in the 1970s and is perhaps due for a quiet revival.

Architects Durisch + Nolli
Project team Pia Durisch, Aldo Nolli, Dario Locher, Thomas Schlichting, Birgit Schwarz
Structural engineer Jürg Buchli
Photographs Tonatiuh Ambrosetti, Walter Mair

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