Nerves of Steel

Gordola College by Durisch + Nolli

Swiss architects Durisch + Nolli showed they were up to the challenge when it came to designing a construction college slap bang in the middle of a flood plane
Wallpaper* magazine issue 151

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Whether in fiction or reality, we are rarely gifted with the perfect plot. And yet for some architects the most difficult terrain can prove not only a challenge, but an inspiration. In the 1960s the Swiss Society for Construction Entrepreneurs (SSIC) chose, perhaps rather rashly, to build their vocational training college on an alluvial flood plain by the village of Gordola in the Ticino district of Switzerland. The ground is spongy here and the water table very close to the surface. In the year 2000 alone the nearby Lago Maggiore burst its banks twice and soaked the entire campus. So when the society held a national competition to design a new workshop building for its trainees in 2004 that would also contain half a million Franken-worth of digital machinery, priority number one was that it be flood proof.

Surprisingly, many of the submitted designs involved building dams or raised mounds to hold back the waters when they came, but winning architects Pia Durisch and Aldo Nolli of Durisch + Nolli Architetti chose the path of least resistance and put their building on stilts. If and when the lake floods again, they reasoned, the water will pass underneath, and when not, the space under the building can serve as a useful parking and storage area. “It also seemed a terrible shame to break the topography of the plain”, says Nolli.

Completed in 2010, their building is a 140 metre-long volume set on a single concrete slab sitting on 68 slim concrete stilts, which in turn are standing on a gravel base. So far so solid, but above the slab is where all the poetry begins: the architects chose a lightweight steel shed roof construction that covers a combination of single and double height spaces in a sharp saw-toothed silhouette that contrasts wonderfully with the flatness of the plain. A shimmering outer skin of inox steel enhances the effect of a floating, slightly other-worldly yet obviously functional building. Viewed from the west, its long, long serrated profile is rather fort-like, but since it appears to hover above the ground on almost invisible stilts one is reminded of the expression “castles in the air” in the nicest possible way. The new building from this angle hides the rest of the buildings belonging to the campus and in front is a large expanse of bare ground called the “paddock” where students are trained to operate heavy construction and site machinery such as excavators and cranes. This area of naked earth provides an eye-catching visual contrast to the shiny metal technical construction resting lightly upon it…