Dutch architect Herman Hertzberger consistently sets himself an aim that is in some ways simple and in others ambitious: that of handing the building over to its users, placing it at their disposition without setting down in detail the way the spaces are used, based on the hypothetical demands of its users. Giving the users the freedom to decide how every part of the building is used has been — and still is — one of the fundamental values of the Dutch architect's work. Contrary to functional determinism, this process enables users to take over spaces, altering their role from "users" to "inhabitants". Designed in over half a century of practice, his school buildings best exemplify this concept.
In Hertzberger's first work in Italy — a school recently built in the Roman district of Romanina with Marco Scarpinato – AutonomeForme —, this criteria can be seen in the diversification of spaces laid out inside and outside the building. The ten primary school and six secondary school classrooms are set along a single axis that, like a street, is configured as a series of communal spaces, social areas for users of the school. Along this "public" axis lies the canteen, the school theatre, the outdoor courtyards and access to the gymnasium. The street becomes a place for gathering, in the different ways adopted over time through use. The canteen area, for example, can be closed with mobile partitions to satisfy Italian health and hygiene regulations but remains a multi-purpose space for various activities when the walls are open. Its section, set lower down from the circulation areas, means that one can sit along the two long sides, characterised by timber-clad steps. The central open space houses public events, while offering an ideal place for breaks between lessons, or for group lessons with several classes.
The theatre was not part of the original brief, but Hertzberger put it forward as part of an idea to expand the stairs connecting the two levels of the school. Here, the term stairs is in fact wrong, as the connection between the two levels is achieved via large steps which can be used for performances, group lessons, end-of-year presentations, meetings with parents or simply for breaks between lessons or during recreation. The courtyards also contribute to the articulation of the main axis, conceived as a way of extending teaching space outdoors and providing places for relaxing and socialising in different ways.
The building is characterised by a simple load-bearing structure of reinforced concrete beams set orthogonally along the main axis, allowing for future extension of the volume. The building's design also permits alteration of the internal circulation, according to a modular grid that allows for flexible spaces, responding to the use and characterisation that the individual user wishes to deploy within them.
The reciprocal relationship between user and form can be seen as an analogy for the same relationship between individual and community. "Users project themselves into the form, just like individuals show their true colours in their various relationships with others while they are interacting," remarks the architect, "and so becoming what they are". Through its forms, the school can also (and especially) become the interpreter of the educational needs of an individual, through preparatory spaces to the infinite possible situations of collective interaction, rather than spaces conceived exclusively by the acquisition of notions; places in which to savour moments of ordinary life, anticipating what the student will be faced with outside of the school. The spaces of the school building are therefore imagined as "places", in which the individual personalities of the pupils can be recognised as active parts of a community: changing space, precursors of a complex urbanity, open to phenomena of social gathering. "Experiencing school" in suitable spaces and places can become a metaphor for our "being in the world", learning to get on with other people, respect rules, look after and participate in the space that surrounds us.
The spatial component of education that Hertzberger proposes in the Romanina school reveals an ethical stance that — even in the light of widespread social behaviour across Italy — rarely finds suitable models that respond adequately to the problems of education in our times. Massimo Faiferri
Elementary School Romanina, Rome (2005 – 2012)
Architect: Herman Hertzberger, Marco Scarpinato – AutonomeForme
Client: Comune di Roma
Total area: 4,800 mq