It’s not often that a public building proves as memorable as we were hoping for. However, the new Dual High School claims its place with the same cheeky confidence as Humphrey Bogart, with Dalai Lama’s death-defying humbleness, with Maria Callas’s mad pride and the same relentless sincerity as Greta Thunberg. So, you see, this school, in which many generations will be growing up, is a building with high pretensions. Not just physically – although its tower clearly reflects a desire to make a splash – but intellectually as well. It’s the kind of architecture that points with the whole hand, saying: ‘look! This is what it’s like to be a human being.’
For those of us who grew up with the provisions’ frigid architecture or the lukewarm naivety offered by the ‘playful’ schools of the new century, the Dual High School’s carefully tailored building stock must seem like the only grown-up in the party. Part of its appeal stems from the fact that the high school reuses the property’s existing factory buildings. These now house the school’s practical training, with the new building reserved for the more theoretical classes; hence the name: Dual High School.
This building will help young people grow up. We all progress from the categorical convictions of childhood to the critical mindset of youth, where nothing seems to be good enough. For most of us, this too is just a phase, but way too few reach the state of maturity where even the imperfect is embraced with curious respect. It’s true that most of us appreciate the wintry charm of a frost pattern on a windowpane or the beauty of an overgrown garden. But few have the guts to commission a building where the qualities of old age play a part. When this happens in a building that will see many generations grow up, this kindles a hope for the future: here stands a built lesson in how to tackle the problems of life.
If this resonance between old and new is responsible for the building’s chronological depth, the feat of humanizing the essentially stupid building materials is what gives it its artistic depth. That the hand-crafted ceramics, cast metals and perfect carpentry must have cost a bit goes without saying, but more remarkable is perhaps the architect’s insistence that the generous budget should not lead to excesses. Indeed, it never really looks ostentatious. The main quality, and the one that impresses the most, is not the expensiveness of it all but the obvious care and commitment that has gone into it. This is what job satisfaction looks like.
The generous spaces and the sophisticated lighting scheme similarly impress with their ingenuity rather than their exclusivity. Any tendencies to school fatigue are countered by means of a varied environment where almost every room offers a new experience. And while there is order and sense in the building’s basically rational structure, it will take the pupils moths, if not years, to fully understand the logic behind some of the layout’s unexpected subtleties. Meeting young people with this kind of challenge is to meet them with trust: we grown-ups offer you something that you might not understand here and now but will learn to appreciate with time. Just like the knowledge this institution is here to provide.
The best things in life are often hard to grasp. What do birds sing about? Why is the twilight hour so poetic? And just where does the old house end and the new take over? This is a mystery that doesn’t need to be solved. It gives the building a mythical dimension that is better met with an open mind than with categorical claims. Inside and outside each tell their own story, and even if I don’t always understand these contrasting signals, that doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate them.
Of course, there are compromises too: the large slabs in the southern wall provide a pleasant degree of shade, but they also block most of the view; the narrow outdoor passages will be nuisance to more than the janitor on those days when snow needs to be cleared; and the whole concept of reusing the old structure on the hill pose problems in terms of accessibility – problems that could only be solved by adding those extremely long access ramps. But then again, it’s precisely by juggling all these different demands that the building is able to make such a lasting impression on the minds of thousands upon thousands of pupils who will treasure the memory of its idiosyncrasies all their life. This way the building becomes the eccentric but empathic teacher that every parent would want for their children.
That any innovation necessarily involves a break with conventions goes without saying. But unlike the kind of architecture where breaching the rules has itself become convention, the Dual High School bases its cautious use of forms on proven principles. The abundant variation comes from combining simple elements to form different constellations. Just like a Moroccan souk, a timbered Swedish farmstead, a whitewashed Greek village or, for that matter, a large forest where every new tree adds more complexity, these repetitions just give us more and more to explore.
This is an additive architecture. The kind that adds rather than subtracts. And the fact that everything remains so clear and easy to read despite the many combinations is due to the underlying modularity that provides a necessary foundation: beneath it all runs this safe and stable bass line. It may not be the first thing you notice, but after a while you realize that this is what renders the variation possible, both indoors and outdoors.
However, we don’t build just to make houses, but because we need spaces. Architecture is, after all, a social enterprise. These spaces are here to promote learning and, if possible, make it enjoyable. Or at least not disagreeable. That is why the quirky layout has no murky corners where bullying can raise its ugly head. The school’s outdoor spaces – the many schoolyards – similarly offer venues for both playing and studying. Which is all very well, but architecture can’t do it alone. Now it's up to you: teachers, principals, school boards and politicians. Even the best of opportunities must be taken. So please make an effort and live up to what the house promises!