With a primary school in Badalona, Spain, Dos Punts and architect Xavier Sans master a lesson in good design
Raul Barreneche -- Interior Design, 1/1/2008 12:00:00 AM
Imagine children being able to call Central Park their schoolyard. The fortunate graduates of the Escola Artur Martorell in Badalona, Spain—the town immediately north of Barcelona—can claim a setting just as idyllic. Founded in 1969, the public elementary school originally made its home in a pair of repurposed colonial-style manses surrounded by date palms, cedars, and bougainvillea in the middle of a city park, Can Solei. A seaside promenade is just a few blocks away. Beyond is the bright blue Mediterranean.
Though the scenery is beautiful, the school's facilities were outdated. So much so that in 2003 the Catalonian provincial government launched a design competition for a new facility. The winner was a temporary partnership between Dos Punts Arquitectura, its name meaning two points in Catalan, and architect Xavier Sans.
Dos Punts's husband-wife principals, Marc Binefa and Montserrat Fusano, and Sans, now principal of the firm D22, sited their school to the northwest of the previous location in order to open as many classrooms as possible to views of the park, in particular an expanse of ground sparsely planted with sculptural umbrella pines. The long three-story structure faces southeast—not the ideal exposure, Binefa admits. "We had to preserve the visual and physical relationship with the park," Fusano explains.
To soften the visual impact of what would have been a continuous slab of a building, the architects pushed its volume in and out, up and down. "Imposing a brutal mass of concrete would have destroyed the harmony of the park," Binefa says. The strategy worked. While sprawling 26,000 square feet, the school building really reads more as a collection of child-friendly houses than as an institutional behemoth. Inside, the classrooms bump rhythmically outward along corridors that narrow and widen as they go along, minimizing logjams at the bustling start and end of class periods.
Maintaining the southeast view to the park while cutting down on glare and heat led to the architects' most innovative moment. "In a school, it's very important that daylight be diffuse. If not, the sun's rays make it difficult to read a piece of paper or see the blackboard or a screen," Sans explains. So he, Binefa, and Fusano came up with a second skin of perforated aluminum. Machine-pressed into pleats—a process involving some technical experimentation—the aluminum panels undulate several feet in front of the exterior's otherwise ordinary horizontal windows, then curve outward to form awnings. (Corrugation stiffens the thin metal, allowing for less support structure.)
The main function of the panels is solar protection: Their 35 percent perforation pattern allows just enough view to be seen and air to pass through while still shading the windows. But there's also an undeniable textile quality to the veiled facade, especially when the wind causes the aluminum to billow slightly.
Irregular vertical stripes in several shades of green, painted directly on the metal, honor the "spirits" of trees that were cut down to build the school, according to Binefa. Those aren't the only ghosts the building conjures. The undulations hint at the melting clocks of Salvador Dalí's masterpiece The Persistence of Memory.
Nature allusions continue inside. Knotty-pine columns represent tree trunks. Rough brown ceramic tiles suggest the soil of the park—the architects left the tiles raw, purposely under-glazed, to stimulate the children's sense of touch and smell. The vibrant accent colors flow from the idea of sunlight reflecting off the school's surroundings, and each classroom is rendered in slightly different tones, so students can identify with their own colorful little worlds. Yellows and oranges on the lowest level evoke the arid ground of the park; greens on the second level suggests light bouncing off the tree canopy; and the blues that fill the upper level hint at sunlight sparkling off the Mediterranean, which is in fact visible from there.
Inside and out, Dos Punts and D22 focused on the more humanistic aspects of design. Although the architects are "interested in utilizing the proper technology for each project," Sans says, their primary concern is to "bring buildings closer to people, buildings that are not just simple containers. We are interested in elucidating emotions."
What response does the Escola Artur Martorell bring out in its young inhabitants? "The students feel comfortable in the building because it stimulates their perceptions," Binefa says. "Children are always closer to nature than adults." Let the learning begin.