Scuola La Monda, Grono, Switzerland by Raphael Zuber
Raphael Zuber’s innovative school building in Grono, Switzerland is a lesson in what creative practices can achieve in a conducive industry culture
The schoolhouse in the Swiss village of Grono, the first completed building by the architect Raphael Zuber, based in nearby Chur, is thought-provoking. This is not just because of its design but because it provides an opportunity to reflect on the differences in procurement culture between the UK and Switzerland.
Cursory investigation highlights the most basic difference: Zuber, aged 38, with one assistant, not only has the opportunity to compete for significant public works due to an unfettered competition process, but is positively encouraged to do so by the Swiss architectural discipline’s strong culture of stewardship.
You don’t have to travel far in Britain to notice that we have a problem architecturally. Although there have been initiatives to improve the production of important public buildings they have been few and are on the wane. Designs only tend to achieve the level of architectural ambition set by the ubiquitous risk-management procedures of local authorities. Public/private investment programmes, although once innovative, are now commercial vehicles in which the architecture, the most visible and obviously important embodiment of the initiative, has become secondary.
In Switzerland, most architects still acquire their work through competition. For the past 130 years the Swiss Society of Engineers & Architects (SIA), supported by the Association of Swiss Architects (BSA), has endeavoured to build a solid foundation for the advancement and coordination of competitions. In 2008 the BSA held a centenary exhibition in the central station court in Zürich, including 300 plaster site models with a huge plaque that simply read: “The architecture competition is good for culture” — a sentiment that warms the heart! Zuber’s school is one of hundreds of schemes competed for and won by young architects in Switzerland every year because larger offices tend not to indulge modest competitions.
This provides a type of public commission that naturally disposes itself to emerging talent. The competition for Grono’s Scuola La Monda was organised using the SIA standard format. Private firms — often architects — specialise in coordinating these competitions. The SIA does not profit from the exchange and yet it freely offers professional advice. Have a look at the RIBA competition page and take note.
In 2007 an invited jury, which included Graubünden and Ticino architects Valentin Bearth and Michele Arnaboldi, supported by municipal mandate, selected Zuber’s design and asked him to prepare a technical report for which he received percentage fee.
This is where the process becomes interesting. Once the report is submitted and scrutinised it is once again put to a public vote. Failure to persuade the populace at this stage is most vividly demonstrated by the unfortunate rejection of Caruso St John’s Nagelhaus in Zürich.
The new school building sits in the centre of Grono. The village is on the south-facing slope of a valley from which rise the mountains that separate Switzerland from Italy. The approach to the school is from the higher north side.
Source: Miguel Javier Verme
At first the building appears deceptively modest, with only its two top floors visible. Its presence only becomes obvious from much closer. Cast in sandy-coloured concrete, it is a strikingly monumental building — a quality compounded by the lack of a recognisable scale. It is tempting to compare it to the four-faced Rotonde villas of Andrea Palladio or Claude-Nicolas Ledoux. However, closer observation reveals the concrete facade to be slight and thin, with the school sitting surprisingly lightly on its sunken podium, resembling a Chinese pavilion.
All this is inferred of course. Conversations with Zuber soon dispel fantasies of ancient pagodas. The formal rationale is pragmatic and architecturally acute. Everything is a specific consequence of deduced axioms.
Zuber developed the basic structural concept and collaborated with Patrick Gartmann of engineer Conzett, Bronzini, Gartmann to execute the design. The brief asked the architect to accommodate spaces that could be changed depending on future pedagogic needs.
A modest budget meant that the overall concept had to be simple. The preferred solution was to take the weight of the floor plates down via the central lift core and to stabilise the centre of the building with a curved wall. The loads then spread out to the building envelope and down to the foundations via elliptical arches bent around the corners at 90 degrees. This cleverly keeps the integrity of the arch intact — a folded Forth Bridge but without the expressive tension members. That function is provided by the post-tensioned cables cast into the concrete at the outer edge of each floor — pioneered by Paffard Keatinge-Clay at the Tamalpais Pavilion in California.
The school sits lightly on its sunken podium, resembling a Chinese pavilion
The large round openings formed in the facade allow the loads to spread naturally around them. They not only act as entrances and apertures for light but also help brace the structure. All the tiny adjustments, the stepping of the window frames, the thickening of the walls at the corners, the subtle shifting of the elliptical arches depending on the size of the circular openings and floor heights imbue the building with an anthropomorphic character. It could be breathing.
The building contains a primary school and a kindergarten, which require a degree of separation from each other. Accordingly, Zuber has arranged the building so the entrances and external breakout areas of the two different age groups do not meet. Older children enter from the north over the bridge into the first floor and have the asphalted area around the building perimeter to play in, while the younger children enter from the south into the ground floor, which sits in a depression surrounded by a low, protective circular wall. This simple move defines the whole external landscape.
The primary school entrance leads to a piano nobile, which accommodates the assembly hall. Once inside the main circulation space, the earthy tones provide a soft introspective ambience and the low lighting illuminates another circular opening on the other side of the building that looks like a renaissance tondo painting of the mountains beyond.
The entrance hall is repeated as a breakout space on all floors and contains a graceful sweeping curved stair in the centre of the plan. There are eight classrooms in all, a canteen, staffroom and workshop in the basement. It is immediately clear that there are fixed structural components and transient ones. All the walls enclosing the rooms are non-structural, self-supporting clay block with wide mortar joints washed with cream paint.
But not all is classically beautiful. Because there are two building systems at play, an unresolved tension exists where they meet. None of the rooms are exactly the same. I am assured that this was not an accident but nor was it entirely intended — it was the outcome of two systems at play. The elements collude to create a peculiarly rustic ensemble. In each of the classrooms, the changing vistas of the village
and the scenery is revealed beyond the concrete arches.
Even with all the glass it remains a very internalised experience.
Zuber lives and works in a milieu that predisposes him to bold architectural expression. Fair-faced concrete is particularly commonplace. The vast reserves of aggregate and sand stored in this Alpine region are deployed on a daily basis to service the extensive and complicated network of infrastructural civil and structural engineering projects.
Source: Miguel Javier Verme
Unlike his friend Valerio Olgiati, to whom he will no doubt be compared, Zuber works by heuristically testing speculations until he finds an elegant solution but also enjoys the conflict created by the convergence of multiple systems — a study of his competition plans make this clear. Stairs clash with structure, walls meet in odd places and materials one wouldn’t expect coexist — each system performs a supporting function like exhausted pugilists clinging to each other at the end of a fight. Zuber’s impulse is pure: to create architecture that touches you. It is human — sensuous.
Importantly he doesn’t want to influence the public en masse but would rather communicate directly to the individual like the relationship established between a writer and his ideal reader. This stance is made possible by generations of dedicated Swiss architects who continue to promote the discipline as an important public act.
Architect Raphael Zuber, Client Comune Politico di Grono, Structural engineer Conzett, Bronzini, Gartmann, Project management Thomas Melliger, Bauplanung, Landscape architect Maurus Schifferli, 4D AG Landschaftsarchitekten, Construction management Devis Bruni and Giulio Cereghetti, Mesocco
Photos by Miguel Javier Verme