architect_ Gion A. Caminada
location_ Disentis, Switzerland
photography_ Lucia Degonda and Marta Cassany
text from Alex Hurst_
Driving south on the main road along the slope of the upper Rhine Valley, one first becomes aware of Disentis via the dominating eighteenth-century monastery that sits at the top of the village. This is the institution that runs the Maedchen Internal school and which commissioned Swiss architect Gion Caminada to design the new girls’ dormitory.
Due to the village’s steep slope, houses and buildings crowd the main road, creating a narrow streetscape typical of the region. The site for the new dormitory is almost precisely in the centre of town. Unlike its neighbours, this building is set back several metres, cutting deep into the terrain and opening up the village’s dense fabric to create a set of differentiated exterior conditions around the building: public on the street side, semi-public at the back and intimate as well as private on the sides. This stepping back from the street also gives the main facade a heightened prominence, expressing its status as an important institution in town. A small public square mediates between the street and the building.
The masonry walls are finished in a muted grey plaster, giving them a solid, reserved appearance. The building would be a cube were it not for a slight skew in the plan, which produces a subtle, strangely softening effect and echoes the irregular-grid arrangement of the village. This organized irregularity is repeated in the windows, whose right- and left- hand panes alternate in size and depth.
The effect is playful, and contradicts the severity and regularity of their arrangement on the facade. A bright color scheme for curtains begins to hint at the youthful going on inside.
‘We attempted to put ourselves in the position of these young girls and ask, what do I need? What will make me comfortable in this place?’ says Caminada in response to questions about how he approached the design. This concern is the central principle informing the project’s siting, organization, materiality and atmosphere.
The five-storey building’s street-level entrance leads to the matron’s apartment and a large communal room for informal activities, including cooking and eating, as well as more organised affairs. The stairs and elevator form a sculptural core, rendered in tinted, waxed concrete, which penetrates the entire building as a continuous formal element and acts as a spatial anchor. Incorporated into the core where it connects with a meeting space on each of the four student floors is a basic kitchen counter as well as a heated recess filled with large cushions, a space reminiscent of the old wood- burning stone-slab stoves once used for heating. The meeting spaces have a single exposure and different orientation on each floor, allowing unique views of the town and landscape to become decisive factors in defining the atmosphere of each space. This principle of rotation is further explored to give each level a direct entrance from the exterior, either at the point where it meets the steeply sloping ground or, in the case of the top floor, from an adjoining building.
With its distinct views and separate entrances, each floor has its own identity as a small familial cluster.
The bedrooms are arranged in a U shape around the meeting spaces. onto which they open. Each bedroom has its own toilet, sink and shower, thus partially deinstitutionalizing the experience and rituals of the inhabitants by removing some of the communal facilities typical of dormitories. This programme also gives the bedrooms’ tight spaces a complex, interesting, yet remarkably fluid feeling. The windows are conceptualised as a response to the individual and her relation to the outside world. The openings in the thick masonry walls are divided into two unequal, vertically organised window panes constructed from untreated wood. Only the smaller pane, lying flush with the interior of the wall, opens, to create a small exterior recess that has been detailed with a pre-cast concrete sill.
One can imagine this as a place for keeping ashtrays, storing fruit or growing flowers and herbs. The larger almost- square pane is fixed and sits flush with the exterior surface of the wall, creating
a niche just large enough for one person to sit in, out at the very edge of the building. The untreated-wood sill/seat also strategically accommodates the radiator below to provide comforting warmth in the long winter months.
Though Caminada realizes the impossibility of truly putting himself inside the heads of these students, he has created a dormitory that is remarkably responsive to its dwellers, offering a series of carefully defined spaces that frame and support the various daily activities on all scales.
From the individual to the group, from the town to the institution, the building asserts its position and identity while providing enough ambiguity and open- endedness for the lives of these students to unfold freely and contribute to the continuously changing expression of this new house.