School an an Urban Zone Nucleus

architect Davor Mateković
project Alojzije Stepinac Primary School, Zagreb, Croatia
written by Ivan Dorotić

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A repeating open raster of ornaments was applied to the dark blue perforated façade of the primary school in Vrbani. This literal visual message emphasizes the activities performed in this building: learning and sports. The illustrations are clear: the book is stands for knowledge and the ball for sports.


The ornament of an open book was applied with screen printing method on the school façade and soccer balls on the sports hall façade, dilated constructively and functionally, though formally belonging to the school. These seemingly literal pictograms, which are today outside the obligatory activities of our school curricula, have effectively become objects that we hardly ever connect with childhood. Our children growingly replace tangible books and three-dimensional leather balls with some pixilated variations of the same, (un)imaginative computer alternatives and interactive screens simulating balls and books...


That is why it is important that the aforementioned coded symbols lost on the sheet metal façade of the primary school in the quarter of Vrbani, designed by the architect Davor Mateković, proudly stand as an almost archaic designator underlying the purpose, importance and value of the mandatory education.


Alojzije Stepinac Primary School in Vrbani stands immediately next to the equally freshly built kindergarten designed by the same architect. The contextual story of the school continues in the same predefined spatial conditions of the kindergarten environment. The construction of these two educational institutions was realized in a relatively rewarding environment which is architecturally less valuable, but urbanistically well-envisioned and reasonable.


The school and the kindergarten along the edges of the longitudinal plot, stretching from the west to the east, are separated by a spacious square (badly equipped by banal and bland urban equipment from the catalogue, which was beyond the control of the architect). But its dimension, together with un undeveloped meadow (apparently the location of a future church), create an ideal school front space, implying its importance as the nucleus of this part of the town.


Therefore, although untypical from the point of view of logical disposition, it was expected already in the competition stage that the main entrance into the building be positioned on the square itself, towards the west, that is, towards the shorter side of the plot, thus limiting the floor plan organization usually designed from the point of entrance and communication. The designers transformed this disadvantage of the floor plan into a usable advantage. The square itself was treated as a dominant feature for the realization of the floor plan disposition which developed from the greatest asset of the school – the entrance space that grows gradually into something significantly more important.


Today the school, that is, its lively center, has a constant visual connection with the public space of the square and the school’s interior is open towards the square at any time of the day. For such institutions this is an uncommon visual interaction, a dialogue with the environment and a bold exposure of the school’s interior to the view from the street. Following this concept, the entrance hall turns into an extended entrance, the main and commendably over-dimensional communication, into a voluminous multi-purpose space. The entrance hall becomes the dominant space, stretched in height across all levels by peripherally tangential and diagonal cuts through all communications within the building. The entrance hall gradually becomes a communication funnel determined on the ground floor by an elongated ramp (achieving the effect of grandstands in the function of using the multi-purpose space); the entire interior hall is toned down with warm yellow, orange and pink colors, vibrant dynamic communication solutions with elongated, cylindrical lamps hanging from above. It pulsates towards the exterior as visually an exceptionally attractive feature, as the interactive core of the school.


This visible interior of the school is dominated by colored transverse communicational stairways that shorten movement on the galleries, that is, the relocation of pupils to different classrooms, offering impressive diagonal visual interactions with almost every corner of the hall’s interior, while the longer, continual communication was achieved by the ramp around the central space.


The classrooms themselves are deliberately distanced, that is, retracted from all other communications, thus achieving necessary isolation for learning and concentration. The designer’s decisions to use light to elevate the central part, except the dominantly transparent façade towards the square, was achieved by small glass openings in the façade to offer views to the Lake Jarun and by zenithal lightning.


Photos with light sensitive cameras as well as visits to the school at dusk may be deceiving when it comes to the perception of the façade color. At first glance the building seems like a powerful, new black architectural work, a distant relative to Darth Vader. But the school in Vrbani is not a black house: it is coated with blue aluminum plates of perforated sheet metal. This well-designed and formally detached blue architectural ensemble, stylistically developed and decisively monochromatic from the outside, is juxtaposed, as a response, with the hectic multi-coloring and misbalance of the neighboring housing block façades. A large, dark, contemporary mechanism for knowledge and growing up markedly reduces this multi-color surrounding; it is moderate and strong, and dominates the environment exactly as much as an educational institution should, but it becomes abundant in color and interactive only in its interior.


As opposed to numerous introverted schools hiding from their neighborhood, the school in Vrbani consciously chooses the path of potential interactivity based on its rightfully imposed importance in the neighborhood. It merely touches the wide square that connect the two zones of the quarter, generating fluctuation and becoming an unavoidable lighthouse of knowledge in the middle of this pedestrian zone. By sending information and making education popular, the school faithfully illustrates the purpose of designing educational institutions.


If children’s playgrounds are the prosthetics of the society, as the legendary architect guru Herman Hertzberger said, than the design of primary schools may be seen as a necessary prosthetics of the architectural profession, the prosthetics of our time.


In times when we consciously define strict parameters of safeness and spatiality of the space where our children may/are allowed to move (constantly reducing it), that continuously limiting (but precisely delimited) standard of the square meters per child in designing educational institutions becomes an attractive and escapist phenomenon. It ensures that children get many square meters in the educational system and in architecture, which is a spatial luxury that has been minimized and lost in the rest of public spaces where there are parks defined by fences, cages for playing, playgrounds and privatized playhouses.


By repeating the motif of the book and ball, the designers of the school in Vrbani have sent a clear message to the local inhabitants and occasional passers-by, about what this building offers: knowledge and game. To know how to play and to use architecture in a playful manner in urban zone design has become the main point of reference for the designers of the school, who have used repetition, the mother of all knowledge, to show that as architects, we are allowed to be playful and to serve children as their catalysts of space, play and development.