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Nature lessons

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In their school at Fredrikstad in Norway, Duncan Lewis and Pir II Arkitektkontor are not just inspired by the natural surroundings, but use materials from the site itself to integrate the building and its landscape

Two years ago a computer-generated image appeared in this journal showing a partly- subterranean passage (AJ 8.2.01). Dark rough-hewn rock with oxide stains appeared at its margins, framing a corridor vista with walls of textured concrete and polycarbonate storage booths. Square concrete pillars, some dividing into branches like trees, propped up the irregularly pitched slabs of the roof, between which light and glimpses of a pine forest filtered through from above.

This vision has now taken form, embedded into a granite protrusion on the edge of the south Norwegian town of Fredrikstad. It is the main circulatory, link corridor of a district high school, taking the form of an artificial canyon, and it is the product of a collaboration between architect Duncan Lewis - originally from Wallsend, now practising in France - and Trondheim-based Pir II Arkitektkontor.

Certain things have changed. The main structural roof props have become fewer and are now massive, cylindrical, black concrete columns. These are interspersed with decorative verticals: about 30 stripped pine trunks positioned intermittently down the 80mlong corridor. The form of the roof is now more conventional, being on a uniform plane and pierced by circular skylights. The skylights reveal the reason for these changes: the massive thickness of the concrete of the roof, which is a safeguard against freak loads of snow.

Despite these differences between the initial image and what has actually been built, the completed building undoubtedly retains the same character as the design. Importantly, Lewis has realised the peculiar ambient qualities suggested in that original vision - the finished product is half-way between a building and a cave, expressing a dynamic tension between the natural and the artificial, the primitive and the highly designed.

This quasi-troglodyte condition is by no means an end in itself, but is part of a wider attempt to synthesise architecture and landscape.The Fredrikstad school, and Lewis'work in general, are not about the production of any one given type of architecture. They are about a process that aims to be directly responsive to a given context, producing an architecture which feeds off the host terrain, assimilating and reconfiguring found materials, both mineral and vegetal.

As Lewis explains, the construction strategy was to use as much of the matter displaced from the site as possible, processing the ready-made materials created by the preparation of the terrain into the main elements of assemblage.

The high school divides into two material themes in this respect: pine wood and granite.On the south side - the frontage - the school emerges out of its relationship with the site's geology. The site first became a quarry in order that it could become a school.The exterior of the four volumes that extend out from the main corridor at lower ground level - housing music rooms to the east, arts and crafts to the extreme west, with administration and the kitchens occupying the two centre blocks - express the immediacy and physicality of that process. Their gabion-block skins are filled with granite stones extracted and processed in situ.

Angled blasting techniques were used to produce slabs that could be immediately incorporated into the building. However, the granite turned out to be inherently more fissured than expected. A specialist Norwegian stone sculptor was employed to help reassemble the rock within the main circulatory canyon. Here the boulders are amassed along the northern side of the corridor, where it abuts the main body of the rock core.Some have flat, prepared surfaces useable as seating niches, but most are uncut.They have been manoeuvred and grouped there by crane, but the effect is as if the building has fallen into place around a glacial moraine.

Irregular rock protrusions emerge out of the smooth concrete floor and the tops of the largest boulders disappear through the ceiling.Here and there, additional structural details have been strategically grafted between the granite and the ceiling. At the eastern end, where the corridor flows into the seating zone for the canteen, the granite appears to wrap around the legs of a concrete staircase, as if it had been channelled there in a molten state.

There are a number of precedents for the school within recent Norwegian architecture. Sverre Fehn's Villa Busk and a number of the cabin constructions of Lund & Slaatto, for instance, have sought a similar degree of fusion with the raw geology of the Norwegian landscape. Thinking more generally, Bernard Rudofsky's 'Porsillipo'house on the Bay of Naples (1936) is perhaps the best example of an earlier, Modernist precursor, being partly constructed on an excavated ledge at the top of a cliff face.

But for an architecture which constructs a range of equations, both aesthetic and pragmatic, from the use of site-found materials, one would have to step outside mainstream Western architecture and look to ethnographically and geographically specific, vernacular constructions - a type of approach which Rudofsky, as a theorist, advocated.

All of Lewis' diverse project proposals - from Qatar, to South Korea, to the Loire Valley - have sought to reaffirm symbolic cultural ties to the landscape they are set in, less through use of image and form as through the way the materiality of a place is emphasised. The process of realisation inevitably has to incorporate local knowledge and expertise, and, as a result, the original concept will probably be modified.

Collaboration with Norwegian specialists has been key to the school successfully becoming native. This is particularly borne out by the way in which the service facilities are provided. They occupy the subterranean spaces of the complex, lying below and behind the ground-floor canyon. Site preparation included drilling 70m boreholes into the granite. Intake ducts within the main front porch circulate air down into the bore holes, where it takes on the constant temperature of the geological mass (approximately 15infinityC) before being circulated throughout the school.

Above the main corridor sit the three main classroom blocks, or home-bases as they are called.Here the reconstituted material is the pine wood of facade battening.These strips of building interpenetrate with the woodlands on the northern limit of the site.Two square fragments of forest have been left intact between the building's wings, boulder, lichen, root and pine tree gardens being simply created through being isolated by the surrounding architecture; framed by the casual rhythm of the plan.

The associative play of the coloured facade elements is most active at this juncture of landscape and building.Coloured glazing and thermo-moulded plastic trees - cast from a pine trunk by artist Dominique Lamandé - appear on all elevations of the upper level.

The trees form two-way, textured, stained-glass columns, which create colour signals that register deep into the woods, and which layer the views from within the classrooms.

A high degree of ambition has been invested in producing the school's rich, associative aesthetic and material environment, but its success is as much down to the fluid mode of use - and, indeed, of being - it promotes.

Fredrikstad's previous school was a severe, 19th-century brick building in the old centre of the fort town - the architectural embodiment of discipline and regimented tuition.Seeing it standing empty now, it is almost impossible to believe that the same population which animates Lewis' school could have ever been contained within its walls.

The new school's lower canyon links up with the classrooms by way of a second, east-west corridor, which effectively runs along the top of the excavated section of the granite face. It flows through the two main library collections, reading and computer terminal rooms, as well as the three stairwell landings which lead directly into the classroom blocks.

The three classroom units take up the theme of multi-functional, programmatic layering found in the two east-west corridors. A main circulatory channel down the east side of the bases contains lockers and wash-basins and provides a casual social space during break-time. The two classrooms of each block occupy their western halves, and toilets and two polycarbonate booths for small tutorial groups make up an intermediary layer between the two.

To the north, the school's back doors connect the interior circulatory scheme with a network of meandering woodland paths, which in turn lead to nearby wooden-clad suburb housing - the school's main catchment area. The vast majority of the pupils arrive via these paths, direct into their colour-coded (green, yellow and blue) age group blocks, exchanging shoes for slippers as they enter, and their homes for the communal home-bases.

Being in Lewis' school is an experience that seems about as distant from being subjected to the rationale of an architectural system as is possible while still remaining within an explicitly designed environment.Because it is determined by its topographic and material surroundings to such a degree, it is also a building that avoids hierarchical order - there is no privileging of one space over another. Significance and interest are spread evenly throughout its limbs and passages.

The school's relationship with its natural environment is established not simply on the level of the visual and the contemplative, through decorative mimicry or the creation of framed views of the surroundings.

Instead, by actively internalising the rhythm and disposition of the landscape, the building's relationship with its environment becomes direct and physical. To move through this building is to physically retrace its integration with landscape.

CREDITS CLIENT Municipality of Fredrikstad ARCHITECT Duncan Lewis (Scape Architecture) and Pir II Arkitektkontor AS:

Duncan Lewis, Ogmond Sorli, Metta Medelson, with: Sveinung Jorum, Hervé Potin, Raffael Boullay, Moustapha Kilinc, Ciryll Lancelin, Thierry Maitre STRUCTURAL ENGINEER Reinertsen Engineering LANDSCAPE ARCHITECT André Hansen

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