Climbing the Stairs of School Spirit

Event: City College of NY (CCNY) School of Architecture Lecture Series: Herman Hertzberger
Location: CCNY School of Architecture, 03.20.08
Speaker: Herman Hertzberger, Hon. FAIA, Hon. FRIBA, Hon. FRIAS — Founder, Architectuurstudio HH architects and urban designers (Amsterdam)
Moderator: George Ranalli — Dean, CCNY School of Architecture
Organizer: CCNY School of Architecture

Montessori College Oost

The central stairs in the Montessori College Oost in Amsterdam.

Architectuurstudio HH architects and urban designers

The creation of social space within a building drives every design for Herman Hertzberger, Hon. FAIA, Hon. FRIBA, Hon. FRIAS, founder of Architectuurstudio HH architects and urban designers in Amsterdam. This comes through especially in his school designs, which typically includes three architectural strategies: oversized stairs, split level floor plates, and the creation of an internal street or piazza.

In the Montessori College Oost in Amsterdam, a ground floor “piazza” with stairs crisscrossing overhead connects split-level classroom floors. From the stairs, students visually connect to others on floors above or below, even down to the ground floor. The stairs incorporate double-height risers to provide seating, and wood is the dominant material, as Hertzberger believes students are more likely to gather around materials that resemble desks and tabletops. In essence, the stairs are the nexus of physical interaction in the building.

Hertzberger’s use of the stair as a prominent social space was greatly influenced by a visit to Columbia University in 1967. He observed students using library stairs as a common gathering space to debate intense political issues. He relished the symbolism of students turning their back to an institution of academic knowledge, and using the building in an informal manner to better serve their needs.

The replacement of formal spaces with informal space is another layer to Hertzberger’s work. He sees buildings as mini-cities and seeks to replicate the informal characteristics of the street, rather than the formality of the square. “The square is somewhere you go — a destination that is stagnant. The street is where you move. If you pass the same person on the street a few times, perhaps you may talk to them… That is social interaction.”