Top of the class

22 Sept 2023

4 min

It’s not just what you learn; it’s also where you learn it. From a school that’s open to the elements to a curvaceous nursery, architecture can help to give children a head start in life. We visit three educational institutions with designs that pass with flying colours.

Iris Nursery School in Guastalla

“The first thing I did when we won the contract was to think back to my own nursery school years,” says architect Mario Cucinella of his design approach for the Asilo Nido Iride – or Iris Nursery School – in the Italian town of Guastalla. As it happens, the nursery school building of Cucinella’s early childhood was designed by rationalist architect Giuseppe Vaccaro, famed for his work on Naples’ central post office in the 1930s. “You don’t have many memories from when you were four years old – but, wow, those first impressions are so important,” says the 62-year-old Sicilian-born architect whose eponymous studio has offices in Bologna and Milan.

For Cucinella, a personal architectural connection to this Vaccaro-designed kindergarten led him to appreciate that architecture can leave an impression on young minds. “I thought, ‘We must be careful with this project because a building will not physically move but it will certainly travel through the imagination of a child and remain in their memory for decades.’”

So the challenge of designing a structure that would capture the imagination of its young users brought Cucinella to Guastalla. The earthquake that struck the small agricultural community and the surrounding Emilia-Romagna region in northern Italy in 2012, had pushed the local council to open a competition for the design of a new nursery, which Cucinella won in 2014.

Luckily for the children of Guastalla, Cucinella’s musings on architecture and space, seen through the mind of a youngster, drew him to a classic Italian children’s novel. “I was struck with the image of the space inside the belly of a whale in Pinocchio, when he and Geppetto were swallowed up,” he says. “I wanted to use that as the basis of an unconventional spatial concept.”

The structure was inspired by the ribs of a whale and the form of trees

Local and less iconic images also inspired his concept. “I asked myself, ‘What does a child see in Guastalla every day?’ All around there is the flat horizontal line of the plain, punctured by the repetitive rhythm of poplar trees,” he says. This starting point led to a design of 50 wooden frames, which are lined up and evenly spaced apart to form the structure of a low, rectangular building. The resulting cross-section creates an interior void, which calls to mind the ribs of a whale and, when viewed from the outside, the series of vertical timber elements look like tree trunks. “This allows children to imagine that they could be anywhere in the world when they come here,” says Cucinella.

The architect points out that this empathetic, child-centric way of thinking differs from the childcare and educational buildings most of us are used to. “Schools can be so ugly,” he says. “They’re often boxes with corridors and classrooms, and with a square window in the middle of the wall.”

The architect did not have to look far in terms of adopting an educational philosophy that supported this approach. The idea of “architecture as the third educator” originated among the teachers and architects in Reggio Emilia, the provincial capital a 40-minute drive from Guastalla. From the 1960s onwards, internationally renowned local educators, such as Carla Rinaldi and Loris Malaguzzi (whose educational philosophy became known as the Reggio Emilia approach) were convinced that the design of an educational environment plays a crucial role in shaping the learning experience of children. If teachers are the first educators and parents the second, then environment is seen as being the next most significant influence on children’s learning, exploration, imagination and interactions.

A critical factor in designing the kindergarten in Guastalla was working with key stakeholders: teachers, children and parents were all involved, says Cucinella. Did he go as far as to organise a focus group for toddlers? “In effect, yes, but it was more like a test run,” he says, recalling a morning, prior to opening, when the town’s children were invited into the space and explored it with only a little supervision. “Of course, the children immediately went for the most dangerous elements. They ignored their toys and found the best surfaces to clamber up onto and slide down,” says Cucinella, referring to the polished wooden half-pipe-like slides that the architects created between the timber frames of the nursery.

Iris Nursery School’s exterior has developed a worn-in patina

Since the completion of the Guastalla nursery in 2015, the project, like its students, has blossomed; its timber walls have developed a patina of deep, worn and welcoming brown, and the surrounding landscape, designed by Marilena Baggio has matured to provide a verdant garden for children to play in. Cucinella’s portfolio has grown too, with the architect taking on an ever-increasing number of projects that seem to be growing in dimension, from a university campus in Rome to towering corporate headquarters in Milan. “The intensity of creativity, for me, is not dependent on the size of the project,” he says. A child’s experience of architecture, according to Cucinella, is just as important as anyone else’s.

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