Integrated Elementary-Middle School Complex in Rome, Italy by Herman Hertzberger and Marco Scarpinato, 2012.
Writing about this recently completed school in the Romanina section of Rome is not an easy feat, given that Herman Hertzberger's buildings beg to be visited to be understood (more than many other buildings) and are designed to be "completed" by the users (as described in an article at Domus by Massimo Faiferri). Therefore the task runs the risk of being an architectonic exercise, mentioning those traits but focusing on plans, sections, and materials, and speculating on the success of the project once the teachers and students figure out how to use the various spaces, indoor and out.
For the duration of the project Hertzberger worked with Marco Scarpinato (AutonomeForme) as Hertzberger + Scarpinato. The duo developed a plan with a repeated courtyard structure that is reminiscent of Hertzbberger's "cellular" designs, in which rooms of various porosity are oriented to shared spaces. Classrooms, a gymnasium, auditorium, and cafeteria serving 500 students are spread across the large site in a complex circulation network that seems to blur the differences between inside and outside.
The spatial component of education that Hertzberger proposes in the Romanina school reveals an ethical stance that — even in the light of widespread social behavior across Italy — rarely finds suitable models that respond adequately to the problems of education in our times. -Massimo Faiferri, at Domus
As the photos here attest, the architecture of the school and its potential is in the steps. Open steps that serve as amphitheaters are a common device in Hertzberger's schools, be it a primary or a secondary school; see the De Salamander extended school (2007), Dalton College Leerpark (2008), and De Spil extended school (2008) on his website for examples. Yet here the steps are in abundance, creating places for assembly but also serving to remove the students from the neighborhood by bringing them below grade. Moving down the steps they enter the world of the school.
Further, interior spaces don't appear to be separated by walls but by more steps, all apparently rendered in wood, a contrast to the concrete and brick that otherwise prevails. It is possible that some of these spaces may receive partitions for acoustics or other reasons, but of course that would be in keeping with the framework that Herzberger and Scarpinato have setup.
Coincidentally, this week I'm reviewing a book that looks at a project decades after its completion, the antithesis of the photos documenting this school. Yet the Hertzberger + Scarpinato creation would be a perfect subject for a similar book. In a decade, or even less, the spaces and places of the school should fill themselves out in terms of how they're used and how successful they are. Seeing the building in the future will be so much more valuable than seeing it today.