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Primary School Mariagrun

Graz, Austria
1 of 15

The project emerged from an European two-stage competition in 2010/11 sponsored by the City Council of Graz on behalf of the Department of Education and Integration. The School achieves the certified passive house standard due to the low-level building structure, the location of the warm rooms on top of each other, the controlled ventilation system with heat recovery and the construction in mixed wood construction - prefabricated high-heat insulated wooden elements. All built-in elements (walls, roof windows, windows, doors) and heat bridges are certified for passive ventilation. It has a nomination for the State Prize for Architecture and Sustainability 2015.

Discovering the world in a haven and laboratory

Located in a less densely populated suburban district of Graz amidst hilly countryside and surrounded by mature trees, the site is characterised by a former sanatorium building that is now home to a kindergarten. A light of steps leads down to the forecourt of the school from a carpark further up the slope. The school, which has gained a reputation as an 'education campus' for all age groups from 1 ½ to 10 ever since it opened in 2014, enables children to 'move' from one house to the next according to their age group. As if it belonged to the same 'species' as the nursery completed back in 2010, the school building's exterior cladding of vertical larch panels emulates the verticality of the trees in the park, thus toning down its own appearance. The darkish plinth disappears in the interstice between the cantilevered structure and the slope. The area itself is car-free; only the paved forecourt in front of the main entrance is accessible for delivery services and people with special needs. Inside the building, you can trace the downward movement that begins in the carpark and continues throughout the children's school day. Entering the building, you walk through a doubledoor airlock and down the steps leading to the main cloakroom on the storey beneath. A second staircase leading in the opposite direction that intertwines with the first one is a clever arrangement that disentangles the distribution of access and exit walkways inside the school in a surprisingly intuitive manner. After changing shoes, the children proceed further into their classroom areas, each of them for four age groups, on the two upper storeys. Both of these storeys also form the building's cantilevered volume. Slightly cutting into the slope in the entrance area, it sits on a plinth containing the gymnasium wing and craft rooms. In addition, the cantilevered structure creates a covered outside area that is linked by a further staircase to the upper level and can be used as an open-air classroom as well. Moreover, since it overhangs the steps beneath which lead to the adjacent sports ground, spectators can also use it as a sheltered stand when it rains. On the lower storey, the gymnasium with its double ceiling height permeates the cantilevered volume. A large window establishes a spatial relationship between the gymnasium and the corridor area in front of the main cloakroom.

According to architect Philip Berktold, winner of the EU-wide two-stage competition in 2011 together with Christoph Kalb and Simone Bertsch, the simple concept and neutrality of the building had convinced the decision-makers. Their design is based on a simple ground plan that excellently relects the new pedagogical conceptdeveloped on the principles of the 'Charter concerning the design of 21st century educational facilities', without being structurally customised in any way that would impede flexible response to change. To create a school that would become what the awarding authority envisioned as a 'test laboratory for discovering the world', it was necessary to provide an open learning area within the classroom clusters. Located on the northern side of the classrooms, or 'homebases', facing south, this space also contains a teacher's preparation area separated only by a glazed partition. That way, teachers and children remain in permanent contact with each other during the school day. All classrooms have sliding doors that openup to provide a larger shared teaching space. Generous openings orientated to the north and south - where a loggia provides a spacious extension for children to study or take a break in addition to shading the classroom - offer direct views into the surrounding park. These grand old trees are an important point of reference within the school. Just like them, the building is deeply rooted to its environment, making it a haven of peace and serenity amidst the bustle of school life.

Built-in elements that are tailored to the children's physique demarcate and divide the open learning area into diferent thematic zones. An additional level inserted into two of those elements creates a diverse range of spaces. A book tower with a sheltered reading area and a computer corner beneath the lower ceiling of the platform offer places for children to retreat, while also breaking up the space into many different and differentiated units. Outside, the light of steps alongside the building, which provide a short cut from the upper entrance area down to the sports ground and gymnasium, again prove that a spatially diverse architectural experience can be generated just by applying straightforward elements in a smart way. At this point, the facade cladding extends outwards to create a covered and contained space for the staircase, allowing people to walk down to the park half inside and outside the building.

Rainer Plosch from GBG Gebaudeund Baumanagement Graz GmbH (City of Graz Building and Construction Management), who played a significant role in the project's development, describes space as a 'third teacher' alongside teaching staff and other peers. Coined in the 1970s by Loris Malaguzzi, the phrase often crops up in today's discourse on modern teaching and learning culture. It makes us realise how essential quality architecture and building culture is, especially in diferent stages of a child's development. It requires a great deal of innovative spirit and smooth collaboration to make that ambition reality in the public realm. This successful project has achieved not only that, but has also set standards for the use of sustainable ecological building material is in a school building, which, as a consequence, is the first school in Styria to receive passive house standard certification. It is an outstanding place of education where young people can develop to their full potential.

  • Evelyn Temmel
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bostjan, February 27th, 2017
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