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Courtyard Mat: SEEH, Heraklion
March 15th, 2013

Courtyard Mat: SEEH

Summer 2012

Location: Heraklion, Greece

Khoury Levit Fong in partnership with Matar Rahmeh Studio

Principals in Charge: R. el-Khoury and R. Levit

Matar Rahmeh Principals: Hoda Matar and Talal Rahmeh

Team: Faisal Bashir, Timmie Chan, Yie Ping, Farnoush Saman

The three schools that form the SEEH (Kindergarten, Primary, and Secondary) form a single sheltering precinct backed into the rolling landscape of olive orchards to the south and north. The angular forms of the plan are shaped by the site, with the regular figure of a courtyard, pinched and inflected by the pressures of accommodation to site geometries. Together the schools form a mat of courtyards, somewhat mysterious from the outside, and by contrast rich and luminous within, and quite open with many windows onto the main courtyard to the north.

The one and two story courtyard-mat-building does many things. Culturally, it summons to mind what have become iconic images of the ruins of the palace of Knossos and the imagined reconstructions that accompany it. The ruins have their own appeal different from the buildings of which they are the remains. Buried rooms open up to the sky from below, walls are beneath our feet, floors have become roofs; it is an architecture embedded in the earth. The architecture here has turned into something mysterious, embedded in the ground, to be discovered. We think that we have captured something of this feeling in the arrangements of our proposal for the SEEH. In our proposal the building follows the site boundary, it is an irregular shape, backing on most of its faces towards rising ground and at its southern tip digging in and buried up to the roof level. The roofs of the building are covered with suspended grape vines (above head-height) supported on posts and strung-wires and lending to the whole building the feeling of something unearthed and overgrown.

Also, in what remains of the Palace of Knossos, and what is seen in the many imaginative reconstructions of it, is an elemental architecture of walls and heavy trabeation. In our proposal we have taken this idea of a stratified architecture of walls, column and beam and reimagined it in contemporary terms. A combination of steel-reinforced concrete columns, precast concrete beams and joists, and arced ceramic ceiling tiles create an open framework filled in with large glazed partitions creating an interior which has weight, but glowing with the light of multiple courtyards. The large amounts of glass not only transmit light but provide broad horizons of visibility across the many rooms of each school lending a very contemporary twist to closed and cellular qualities of the ancient architecture to which the project makes reference. The shallow vaulting in the ceilings running through all the schools creates a patterned spatial continuity throughout each building and draws to everyone’s attention the relationship between individual rooms (classrooms, canteens, offices, et al) and the building as a whole and by analogy draws a relationship between the discrete events (of learning, of eating, of administrating and the whole institutional community.

The pattern of the ceilings is similar to the grain of the vine plantings on the roofs and thus relates the spatial qualities of the building within to the landscape forms without.

The boundary walls that enclose the outer most perimeter of the building are made of stacked stone or pre-cast stone blocks that are laid up to make a rain screen around a glazed interior wall. The units are stacked in an elastic screen pattern taking advantage of the parametric controls over design and manufacture. The shifting degree of openness and closedness in the arrangments of this screen-wall are related to two factors, the desirability of view through the walls from within and the desirable amount of light penetration into the building. By virtue of making such a screen wall instead of more conventional windows the outer wall of the building can be adjusted with great flexibility to performative criteria but also create through the uniformity of the screen-wall effect the mystery and discovery that ensues from the shrouded nature of the world of the school within.

By contrast, the wall to the courtyard, also made of precast elements, columnar in this case, is now much more widely spaced with an abundance glass. The transparency of this large-courtyard wall creates a more immediate relationship between the schools’ interiors and the shared space of the large courtyard space.

In this proposal there is a dramatic event that takes place every day in the lives’ of students, and it occurs every time they pass into the school thick with classrooms and courtyards. The matrix of passages, courtyards, and the many classrooms, lab rooms, cafeterias, offices, and spaces of assembly that are a deep and wide mat of spaces make of these schools something like the cloistered spaces of medieval campuses but here made fresh, light and airy—there is a sense of an entire world within, thick and deep, sheltered and glowing into which students enter every day for their studies. Within matrix of courtyards is wide and deep, but not disorienting, due to the clear organization of the plans, the orienting effects of the courtyards and cross views through the building, and the regulated visibility of the outside world. It is a place replete with historical resonance and contemporary sensibility.