The Viennese practice has designed an informal modern learning environment in Neustift im Stubaital, where landscaped green roofs act as playgrounds sloping down to the river and children learn from being outside
The Viennese architectural practice Fasch & Fuchs has already built several schools. All of them are powerful, focusing on the needs of children and young people and reflecting modern teaching principles. They take into account the central role of light in wellbeing and integrate a permeability between indoor and outdoor space.
The architect has continued to follow these principles in one of its latest school buildings, the school centre in Neustift in the Stubaital, Tyrol. As is so often the case with Fasch & Fuchs, it is not a simple cube but a complex building. It is more like a landscape that can only be judged by walking through its interior and exterior spaces and getting to know its spatial qualities and visual connections.
The way to Neustift is via Innsbruck and from there by car or bus to the Stubaital, past Zaha Hadid’s ski jump. The valley of Stubaital is surrounded on three sides by high mountains ranging from 970m to 3,507m above sea level; just 5.5 per cent of the area can be settled at all.
The new school centre is located at the beginning of the municipality, directly on the main road. A two-storey building with a recessed, partially transparent first floor welcomes the pupils. Behind it, not immediately visible from the street, single-storey structures nestle into the sloping terrain. The end of the school complex is marked by a four-storey cube resting on a base, the boarding school building. Just behind the tower-like end of the school campus flows the river Ruetz, meandering along the valley floor.
About 450 children attend the school campus in Neustift every day, but this Friday the school building is empty due to the pandemic. While from Monday to Thursday the classes take turns learning on site, on Friday everyone is home-schooling. Thomas Wirth, director of the secondary schools, is the only person present today. He heads two of the four schools located on the site, the general secondary school and the ski secondary school for children from 10 to 14. In addition to these schools, there is the primary school for children from six to 10, as well as a polytechnic school for children from 14 to 15, who will follow their schooling with an apprenticeship.
The ski secondary school with boarding facilities plays a special role in the whole ensemble. Director Thomas Wirth explains its special features: ‘In almost every province in Austria there is at least one such secondary school specialised in ski training. From October to April, the children train on the glacier or in one of the surrounding ski areas in the mornings, and then have lessons in the afternoon on those days. Even the class size is adjusted to the size of the vans that the trainer uses to take the children to the ski area. Since the children come from all over the Tyrol and some from abroad, it needs to be a boarding school.’
There is a photo by architectural photographer Hertha Hurnaus that sums up the essence of the school particularly well. In this photo, a child sits on one of the elevated shoulder terraces and looks out over the green roofscape to the boarding school building towering at the end of the site and to the slopes opposite. It is a landscape that invites discovery. This principle of the stepped landscape can also be found inside the building. Like a spine, a staircase of steps and ramps holds together the individual building blocks of the school, which are offset in height.
The young children are taught on the first floor of the entrance building; the older pupils are in the one-storey buildings spread across the slope. Shared by all schools are workrooms, school kitchen and gymnasiums. A central staircase leads from the entrance area via the assembly hall and the reading staircase to the basement with the gymnasiums and physics rooms. From here, stairs and ramps continue to the height-shifted clusters of the secondary schools and polytechnic school.
At the end of the corridor is the cafeteria and the entrance to the boarding facilities housed in a square, four-storey building with a central atrium. Here, too, the architect has succeeded in creating a spatial formulation of the common areas that invites the pupils into the community building: the central atrium connects with the children’s two- to four-bed rooms and the respective common rooms.
It took 14 years from the initial project idea to the inauguration. Looking back, Peter Schönherr, mayor of Neustift, says he always met the right people who accompanied and supported him in the different phases. In general, a project of this size is not an everyday occurrence for a community the size of Neustift. From the beginning, the mayor was met with great resistance from the population. The choice of location at the entrance to the village led to a referendum with 67% of the votes against the project.
‘But where do you get a 1.2ha contiguous plot of land? And one that’s not in a hazard area?’ Schönherr is persistent; he has been mayor for more than 16 years and really believed in the idea of creating a school of the future: ‘The most important thing is that great people come out of here. We want to show that education must be a central concern, even in a tourist town.’
The site of the school used to be just a green Alpine meadow that sloped gently from the road to the river in the north-west. ‘I still remember how the architects stood in small groups on the meadow at the competition hearing. That fascinated me, how they absorbed and analysed the place,’ says Schönherr.
And yet there was only one architectural firm that found an adequate solution for the site. That is why the jury did not award any second place, only two third places. The two-stage competition was won by Fasch & Fuchs, the only one to envisage an area-wide development but predominantly single-storey. The practice’s proposal was deeply connected with the surrounding rural setting. It did not design a building but a set of buildings that develop like a landscape with the slopes of the hill framed by higher buildings at each end of the complex.
At the new location, the rooms create space for new pedagogical concepts that diversify educational work by partly moving it from the classroom to open learning spaces. Three to four classes form a cluster, sharing a common room located in front of the classroom. Architect Hemma Fasch calls this additional space a marketplace, where pupils will find seating, shelves of books and a computer workstation. Here, lessons can take place across classes, the individual classroom can be enlarged by means of openable double doors, or the children can learn independently in small groups spread across the classroom and marketplace.
But Hemma Fasch and Jakob Fuchs’ design thinking does not stop at the interior. The direct relationship and permeability to the outdoor space is just as important to them. From each marketplace a door leads out to a terrace. These outdoor spaces have nothing in common with a traditional schoolyard. During the breaks, the children do not enter a fenced courtyard but a roofscape; stairs lead to lower levels, to wooden plateaus and green lawns.
‘The pupils should be able to commute between inside and outside, to move without boundaries,’ the architects explain – only in this way can children develop into mature individuals.
The illumination of the rooms was also a central theme for Fasch & Fuchs, and its handling is impressive. Sometimes the light comes from above, sometimes from the side, sometimes it penetrates down to lower floors. For example, the skylights of the shed roofs above the marketplaces provide optimal, glare-free lighting. Seen from the outside, however, these sheds look like ingrown hills.
After viewing the interior and exterior spaces, it is important to circle the building once more. It is fascinating to see how the structure develops along the way. It can hardly be perceived as a whole – only individual parts can be seen slowly rising out of the slope, revealing themselves only to disappear again. This school has grown together with the landscape. In this way, both the school complex and the surrounding area complement each other with an incredibly rich offer of space and experiences.
Anne Isopp is an architectural journalist, based in Vienna.