Sharing School

[Originally published in Bauwelt 5.2023. Photos by Aitor Estévez]

Barcelona has some of the densest neighborhoods in Europe, so it is a city rife with conflicting demands over public space. Drivers, cyclists, and pedestrians quarrel over street space; young and elderly over what sorts of activities should be permitted in public squares; and local citizens and businesses over what kinds of services the city should provide, and for whom. Even public schools are sites of conflict, not only among children who don’t get along but also between the school community and an uptight neighbor –there’s always one– who resents the noise of children playing in a schoolyard.

Public schools are indispensable parts of neighborhoods. Children learn street-smarts on their way to and from school every day, thereby becoming citizens. Schools are also where parents socialize, where voting occurs during elections, or where shelter is provided during an emergency. Many of Barcelona’s public schools, for example, become neighborhood “climate refuges” during extreme weather episodes. There are even some schools in Barcelona whose yards become official public squares whenever pupils aren’t using them, a time-sharing arrangement born out of necessity in such a heavily used urban environment.

The Mar Bella primary school, by SUMO Arquitectes, is situated in the heart of Barcelona’s seaside village of Poblenou, and was conceived from the outset as a public educational facility that the surrounding neighborhood could also use in part. Its gymnasium, which doubles as a neighborhood meeting hall, is regularly opened –both literally and figuratively– to local neighborhood associations for assemblies, extracurricular activities, or cultural events. It does so through its siting between a public square at one end and a commercial street at the other, and through ground-floor walls of bifold glass doors that open the interior seamlessly to the exterior. A multiuse space for all seasons.

Historically a fishing village, Poblenou was annexed by Barcelona in the late 19th century, after the city’s walls were demolished and the Cerdà expansion plan began to be implemented. It then grew into Barcelona’s largest industrial district, earning itself the nickname “the Catalan Manchester.” Today, this former industrial area is in a post-industrial transition toward the knowledge, tech, and business district known as 22@ (its previous industrial zoning code was 22A), with some of its factories converted into university buildings and cultural facilities while gleaming new hotels and office buildings replace others. The old village of Poblenou, meanwhile, has somehow managed to retain some of its identity throughout this transformation, although the gentritouristification of Barcelona is starting to price Poblenou out of the reach of many locals. Today, Poblenou is known for the many expats, especially digital nomads, who settle here for periods of time.

The construction of the Mar Bella school is a significant transformation of a part of the old village. Previously, the site belonged to a religious school whose courtyard was surrounded by various constructions from different periods, and a neighboring parish church; both of which faced onto a small urban public square. The new school reinhabits one wing of the former religious school, which has been refurbished, while replacing another wing with an adjoining newbuild, the two forming an L-shape around a corner of the schoolyard. The church is also replaced by another new construction to expand the school, in this case the aforementioned gym that doubles as a neighborhood space. The two newbuilds, separated by a narrow pedestrian street, are connected at their upper levels by an enclosed bridge. The overall result of this urban acupuncture is a building complex comprising old and new, as well as adjoined and free-standing, that zig-zags through the neighborhood, reconfiguring it in the process.

The school’s program is distributed so that its more private institutional functions –the classrooms, dining hall, and administration— are contained in the L-shaped ensemble that faces onto the schoolyard, while its more public function –the gym that doubles as a neighborhood space— faces the public square. The refurbished wing of the L contains the  dining hall on the ground floor with preschool classrooms above, while the orthogonally adjoining newbuild contains the school’s administrative offices on the ground floor with primary level classrooms above. Pre- and primary school pupils have their own separate entrances from the common schoolyard, which is in turn entered from the square in front of the gym through a gateway. The gym can be entered directly from both the square as well as the commercial street in-behind, doors that are opened to the neighborhood every day after school finishes for extracurricular and other regular activities, while on certain days the gym becomes a space for neighborhood festivities.

The facades further distinguish the publicly shared realm from that which is more private. The newly built classroom wing features large balconies functioning as outdoor extensions of the classrooms, not unlike Amsterdam’s seminal Open Air School of 1927 by Jan Duiker. These balconies, which face southwest onto the schoolyard, as well as the windows of the preschool wing that face southeast, are equipped with canvas sunshades that can be adjusted depending on the weather, and that architecturally unify the two adjoining wings built more than 60 years apart.

The school is a veritable surgical insertion into the finely grained and compact urban tissue of a historical village of Barcelona, an example of the kind of public space and architecture that the city became famous for in its pre-Olympic heyday of the 1980s. Conflict is an inevitable part of metropolitan life, but it is one that architecture can mitigate when designed flexibly, openly, and intelligently for time-shared use. This way, most neighbors will at least be pleased some of the time.

1 Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.