BACK TO SCHOOL
ARMAND GRÜNTUCH AND ALMUT GRÜNTUCH-ERNST founded their
architecture firm Grüntuch Ernst Architekten in 1991 in Berlin. Armand studied
architecture at RWTH Aachen (Rheinisch-Westfälische Technische Hochschule
Aachen) and IUAV Venice (Università Iuav di Venezia), while Almut pursued
architecture at the University of Stuttgart and the Architectural Association
School of Architecture in London. Later, both of them went on to teach at HdK
Berlin, one of Europe’s leading public art and design schools.
Since 2011, Almut Grüntuch-Ernst has been the chair of the Institute of Design & Architectural Strategies at TU Braunschweig. From 2010 to 2015 she was on the consultant committee for town planning in Munich and since 2016 she has been a member of the Academy of Arts Berlin. Armand Grüntuch has been a member of the Advisory Board of the Bundesstiftung Baukultur since 2016.
The duo’s work includes residential and office buildings, transport buildings, hotels, and educational institutions in addition to special commissions such as the conception and design of the German contribution to the 10th Architecture Biennale in Venice in 2006.
Their buildings seek to contribute to the transformation and blending of functions and diversity of urban spaces. Their projects in Berlin, Hamburg, Leipzig and, most recently, in Chemnitz and Madrid, have led to numerous national and international awards.
Almut Grüntuch-Ernst spoke to Pallikkutam about German School Madrid, one of the largest civil architecture projects by German architects abroad. It was named the winner of the World Architecture Festival in the Schools – “Completed Buildings” Category for 2016.
“School buildings point the way to the future,” says Almut with a prescience typical of someone who seeks to fashion the world around her with reference to not only spatial aesthetics but also sociocultural underpinnings.
When you first put pencil to paper, how did you begin visualising the award-winning German School Madrid? What did you have in mind and how did it evolve...?
The German School in Madrid is one of the oldest German schools abroad, which meant that it had a highly desirable inner-city location. The expansion project was taking it to an entirely different location, on the city periphery, where since 2003 a whole new suburb has been developing. In response to this suburban character, we were encouraged to bring urban qualities to the periphery.
Accordingly, landscape was the theme of the design. The view is wonderful! From the site you can see snow-covered mountains. That’s one advantage of a location on the edge of the city. We wanted to create a geometric landscape that would be capable of forming a network structure for the whole campus, securing a high degree of flexibility for the design. At the same time, we wanted to create a location with a sense of identity, one that allowed for openness as well as introversion and security — a mix we find in a monastery typology.
What was central to your aesthetics when it came to designing a school?
We tried to unite all the different requirements in a project that would also have a strong sculptural presence. We wanted to combine clearly identifiable individual sections to form an ensemble that would constitute one organic, comprehensible structure. The programme was to be divided among three central sites: The Kindergarten, the Grundschule (primary school), and the Gymnasium (academic secondary school). Additionally, however, we wanted the school to have a shared central area. We thought it was important to break up the large expanses of the courtyard spaces so that the children could find their own way around, but still feel like a part of the group.
During the design process, we spent a lot of time on the plot and the basic geometry. It poses questions like: how can you create regularity, what can you derive from a situation like this? As an architect, you always hope that all the problems will disappear once you find the source code. Eventually, we felt that everything was just right — the way structures of varying heights related to each other. Using homogeneous materials and a clarity of form, we were creating variety within a strong architectural vocabulary.
There is no denying that fine architecture (and its aesthetics thereof) influences learning and education. Design influences the course of life itself. How do you see the intersection/s of design and learning in a school or an educational institution?
The brief specified that the international school should convey certain values and even that it should function as a foreign policy tool. This is because the school promotes cross-cultural exchange between young people and its activities and events have an impact that goes far beyond the local sphere.
School buildings point the way to the future and play a key role in conveying both building culture and sustainability. A school is, after all, more than just a system of classrooms and lessons; it is a vital part of the pupils’ living environment and influences how they experience and understand the built and natural world as well as their sociocultural surroundings. The architecture of the German School Madrid thus uses all the means at its disposal to shape varied visual and spatial references and creates places for movement, encounters, and retreat that foster personal growth, a sense of group identification, and intercultural exchanges.
In the German School Madrid, you have deployed vast expanses or concourses (foyer) where all children of the school meet before heading off for their separate school buildings. What was the philosophy of such a spatial aesthetics in the design of the school?
We wanted to bring everything together at a central location. Thus, we created a courtyard — we call it the foyer courtyard — to provide a special zone between outside and inside. This is the reception area, where all the students first arrive. The courtyard has shaded areas, as the Spanish climate demands the planning of spaces where people can take refuge from the sun and heat. However, we also provided bright areas open to the sky. The sculptural strength of the polygonal skylights creates a captivating interplay of light and shadow.
In the three years since you designed the German School Madrid, how have the students performed both inside and outside the classroom? Has the aesthetics that you chose to apply to the school exerted a tangible influence on the performance and character of the school?
In 2016, the German School Madrid had its 120th anniversary. It was founded in 1896 with 36 students in four classes and has now grown to 1,700 pupils and 100 graduates each year. The successful formula for the school’s ongoing appeal lies in the fruitful intermeshing of three factors: infrastructural modernity, contemporary cultural policy conception, and lived pedagogical innovation. With its special educational programme, evening theatre performances and concerts, the German School Madrid is an important site for cultural exchange. The school is very proud of the new building which has won the WAF World Architecture Festival 2016 as ‘Best School in the World’.
Finally, when you designed the school, what were some of the things you decided you would break away from in terms of styles, traditions, content, material, or even aesthetics?
The special features of our design are, on one hand, the introverted, enclosed patios which radiate a certain intimacy, and, on the other hand, the view out to the mountains from the point where the schoolyards come together to form one large space. We decided to return to traditional simplicity in combination with innovative technological sophistication, which both influenced the design approach, its construction, and building services. The implementation of vernacular techniques, such as natural cooling through a subterranean thermal maze, will ensure the building’s sustainable operation.