The St Johann district of Basel is a tense clash of different scales. Residential blocks, the Novartis industrial area, the northern ring road and the St Johann inland port on the Rhine are all found in close proximity. And between these two extremes lies a perimeter block development stretching mercilessly without interruption, plus the massive volume of a former coal warehouse, which has housed oil tanks for the nearby district heating power station since the 1960s.
The reform of the Basel school system and the large influx of newcomers to this part of the city in recent years resulted in an urgent need for new educational facilities here especially. In 1996 the local authority, Basel City, organised a design competition for a school building containing 12 classrooms, the related ancillary rooms and a large sports hall.
The project as constructed is not an attempt at innercity rehabilitation, but rather the opposite; it highlights the fragmentation of the urban structure at this point in the city. But it mediates with great sensitivity between the various types of use and conflicting architectural scales that meet here.
The powerful presence of the warehouse, which dominates this district, was the starting point for the design. The new school building has been built on the site of a former heavy oil tank. It adjoins the remaining warehouse directly and assumes the same building lines; the only difference is that the new building is taller. The 6 m deep excavation that remained after removing the oil tank has been used to accommodate the sports hall. The open area in front of the school, with its gravel underfoot and canopy
of leaves overhead in the summer, is used by the pupils at break-times but also serves as a common area for the local community.
The fair-face concrete facades help to establish the school building as an interface between the residential and industrial elements. Thanks to the layout of the form-work panels, the facades lend the building a monolithic character, even though the east and west elevations contain large openings. This compactness and the use of wood/aluminium windows fitted flush with the outside face are references to the neighbouring industrial structures, for instance the district heating power station. However, this is not a case of thoughtless industrial aesthetic. Like the adjoining warehouse, the facade concrete's pale yellow colouring has a warm, weathered feel, yet at the same time its fine, smooth character shows it to be something totally distinct.
Extract from: Archithese 1.01
Architects: Miller + Maranta, Basel
Construction period: 1997-2000 Assistants: Peter Baumberger
Othmar Brugger Michael Meier Marius Hug
Structural engineers:Conzett Bronzini Gartmann Chur
Extract from: Archithese 1.01
Jurg Conzett Interior layout
The main access to the school is from the open area used by the children at break-times. Much of the entrance hall which runs the full width of the building, can also be opened up to merge with the open area. On one side a staircase leads down to the first basement level containing a viewing gallery for the sports hall and the cloakrooms, and from there a second staircase leads down to the sports hall at the second basement level. The stairs to the first floor, which accommodate common areas, are on the other side of the entrance hall. Two smaller staircases lead to the other floors above.
The layout of the other floors is essentially determined by the depth of the building and the loadbearing walls. The four room "bands" have a simple form: a classroom on the facade and the adjoining generously sized atrium, opposite this a room for special teaching requirements. However, the result is complex: a maze of corridors spreading out from the atria, but providing interesting views - into the atria, into the surroundings, into the classrooms and often even straight through several room "bands". This guarantees orientation at all times, but is also a spectacular demonstration of the unique character of an urban district split between residential and industrial uses.
The entrance to the school building is on the "residential side" of this district, where small structures prevail and where only the district heating power station with its
100 m chimney provides a clue to the abrupt alternation in the structure of the local developments. We see more and more of the other side of the city as we climb higher and higher within the school. We can see as well the industrial buildings and the cranes of the inland port on the Rhine, whose unexpected size suddenly makes us realise how near they are. This setting helps to illustrate the impressive change of scale and opens up new perspectives for this district in the truest sense of the word.
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