The Architecture of Analogy

A Model School: Aldo Rossi’s School at Fagnano Olona

Posted in Discourse, PhD by Cameron McEwan on May 3, 2012

The recently established Foundation for Architecture & Education is an independent forum for the exchange of ideas about architecture and founded by Samuel Penn and Penny Lewis, who tell us, “Architects work within a rich canon. Defining the position of contemporary work in relation to the vast body of work that has gone before it is important.” The Foundation for Architecture & Education organises events, produce publications and coordinate a post-graduate course in architectural studies. The premise of which is to provide a framework in which each participant can develop their understanding of the discipline through the study of built work. The year long course is split into three parts: Model, which involves the study of a building that exemplifies a particular idea about architecture; Axiom, which demands that participants develop a clear position on their own practice in the context of a broader appreciation of shared concerns for architecture; and Locus, which offers the opportunity to design a building in a specific location. The building chosen to study in Model provides the building type to design in Locus. Each year, a new question is asked, which will be returned to in all of the work undertaken. This year is the question of size: what size should a building be?

This post is about term one Model, which concludes with an Open Review this Saturday 5th of May after a talk and presentation by architect Raphael Zuber and Christoph Gantenbein on Friday night. The building selected to study is Aldo Rossi’s school at Fagnano Olona, a small town, 40 km northwest of Milan. Designed in 1972, Rossi had built only the Segrate town square in 1965 and the Gallaratese housing block in 1970, completing the school at Fagnano Olona in 1976. Thus, it is considered one of Rossi’s early works.

Rossi A (1972-76) Fagnano Olona Elementary School [Photograph: McEwan C 2011]

The selection of this building is: first, Rossi is regarded as a significant architect and Fagnano Olona school is recognised as significant in the development of Rossi’s built and theoretical work. Second, when published, it is often illustrated in plan only and as with all of Rossi’s projects, is accompanied by beautiful sketch studies and photographs. However, the site context and sectional drawings are almost always missing. Third, the building type is sufficiently complex to use as a base for term three, Locus. Finally, and from a personal point of view, Rossi forms the foundation of my PhD, and as readers of this blog will know, there was really no other choice…

Fagnano Olona school is defined by its courtyard plan-form and axially-arranged accommodation. The elevation is punctured with large square openings set in line with the internal wall thus articulating the shadow that falls on the external surface. One enters underneath a large clock, and with the adjacent conical brick chimney (containing the plant), it is like walking into a painting by de Chirico or Sironi. When I visited (see this post), it was the Summer holiday so the school was empty and the association of de Chirico was perhaps intensified by this. The chimney marks the entrance and primary axis of the school, which is organised northeast to southwest between an assembly hall and a linear pergola. Within the courtyard, wide steps lead to the double height gymnasium on the northeast, from which one can look toward the cylindrical library with its glazed roof. Double-corridor wings surround the courtyard and contain twenty-two classrooms (over two floors), staff facilities and a dining hall.

Rossi A (1972-76) Fagnano Olona Elementary School [Re-drawn by McEwan C 2012]

It is interesting to note a recent AR. The February 2012 issue has a short section on schools, in which Christian Kuhn offers four attributes for the building type: flexibility, clustering, common core, and connectivity. We can analyse Fagnano Olona via these attributes.

Kuhn’s attribute clustering, is the division of the school into a hierarchy of smaller clusters. We can see this at Fagnano Olona in the blocks that extend outward from the central courtyard. The longer ones contain four classrooms with a corridor that is 2.5m, and repeat over two floors. The shorter ones contain three classrooms and a room off the corridor (the courtyard end), used as an informal teaching/learning space. These cluster blocks are a single storey with a 2m corridor. The blocks frame an external space with trees and grass.

Flexibility is about the granularity of room sizes and not necessarily about open-plan layout. At Fagnano Olona, the classrooms are repeated units, arranged within the four linear blocks. The other two block contain staff rooms and the dining hall. There is variation in this. At the end of each block the final classroom extends to the width of the corridor. A further subtle variation exists in the northwest end classrooms because the corridor is widened to 2.5m, from the 2m width of the southeast block. Thus, there are three classroom forms, although a fourth informal one exists as the teaching/learning space, which is roughly half the size of the small classrooms and constitutes both circulation space and space for learning.

At Fagnano Olona the common core is the central courtyard with steps. A playground, assembley space, town square and theatre. But also the informal teaching/learning spaces act quite readily as an indoor meeting place.

The final attribute that Kuhn offers is connectivity: the school as a node in a wider network of learning. He cites other learning institutions including secondary/primary school, nursery, and library at the local level; with ICT connections at the global level. At Fagnano Olona, the school includes a library, the circular element in plan, which is also part of the courtyard and adjacent to the entrance. One imagines this space to be used by the community as, for example an exhibition space.

The significance of Rossi’s work is in it’s associative links and typological investigation. Fagnano Olona is no different. A de Chirico clock and chimney mix with the pergola as a reference to the archetypal hut. The courtyard is a typological form, a town square, its steps like an amphitheatre. The library which looks like a baptistry. At Fagnano Olona my interest is in the clarity of composition and investigation of repetition and variation.

Although Rossi is often attacked for dismissing human scale, studying Fagnano Olona in detail reveals the opposite. From the over-scaled square windows which contain four smaller-sized square windows within, to the subtle difference in corridor width, the modest teaching/learning spaces and in particular I was struck by the ledge at the entrance vestibule where children can sit and shelter from the rain, peering, and thinking about that strange chimney, framed by a large square window.

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3 Responses

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  1. Anthony Haynes said, on May 3, 2012 at 17:28

    Like it – the post and, from your account, the school. Could you say a little more about the meaning of the term ‘clustering’ – not sure I’ve quite ‘got’ it.

    • Cameron McEwan said, on May 9, 2012 at 20:51

      Thanks for the comment, Anthony. Sure.

      At Fagnano Olona there are six wings that lead outward into the playground from the central courtyard. In the plan above, the top four of these contain classrooms and the lower two contain staff rooms and the dining hall.

      Each wing is a cluster. A mix of large and small classrooms, corridor and informal learning/teaching space. This last space is arguably the most important. So a cluster is a mix of units that offer a variety of spaces for teaching, learning and playing.

      Hope this helps.

      Cameron

      • Anthony Haynes said, on May 9, 2012 at 21:04

        Thanks, Cameron – I get it. And from my own experience of teaching, I’d agree that having some informal teaching space is really important


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