Text description provided by the architects. When we started to work on this project four years ago, there was a big controversy on whether the site was suitable for building a primary school. On one hand, the site was located on the edge of the plot for a large-scale cultural tourism real estate project; on the other hand, the height difference in the site was as large as 35 meters. Many people, especially those in the education department, thought the site was not suitable because of the inconvenience and safety risks of school attendance for schoolchildren aged 7-12. However, the existence of the mountain excited us. We believed it was an opportunity to design a unique school. The mountain is like a double-edged sword. Good design could absorb its negative effects and highlight its positive value. Therefore, our solution to the issue was all about “the mountain”. We hoped to build a mountain campus, which was promising, accessible, and convenient.
The application of the mountain. The plot is high from east to west and low in the center. In our design, the main teaching area is on the east hillside; the gymnasium, natatorium, staff dormitory, and canteen are integrated into one building, which is on the west hillside; the sports field is in the central low-lying land, with proper soil-filling foundation and flood discharge trenches; a corridor on the north area of the plot is built to connect the east part and the west part of the project. According to the natural terrain, the campus is separated into two parts. It naturally formed a green valley in the center of the site. From the road direction, campus buildings would not block too much mountain view because of the green valley.
The manifestation of the mountain. In Italy, Spain, and some other places, villages are sometimes “visibly” spread out on the top of mountains. However, villages in China are mostly “hidden” at the foot of the mountain or on the mountainside. In this project, we try to lower the height of the four teaching buildings as much as possible, making it the same height as the contour line and layout radially along the mountain. Between the teaching buildings, there are stepped garden platforms, which are spreading along the foot of the mountain. Under the stepped platforms, many auxiliary functions are arranged on each floor, such as corridors, teachers' offices, and toilets. These rooms all have open windows facing the corridor, and additional patio windows on one side to meet the needs of moisture insulation, ventilation, and lighting. The main teaching buildings radially face the roads and sports fields. It created a visual corridor to enjoy mountain views. People can see mountains through buildings from all angles, while they are on campus or passing through urban roads. People can enjoy mountain views even after all campus buildings finish construction.
The experience of the mountain. It is generally believed that the layout of buildings parallel to the mountain contour lines can save the costs of earthwork. However, this kind of design will make each building lies on a different elevation, resulting in a large change in elevation from inside to outside of the buildings. It could be inconvenient and bring risks to schoolchildren attending school. When we build teaching buildings perpendicular to the contour lines of the mountain, we make one end of each building lies at the foot of the mountain. Therefore, the height of the first floor in each building is basically the same. Children use the first-floor corridors at the foot of the mountain to attend school, and then use the stairs after arriving at teaching buildings. In this way, our school is as convenient and safe as those built on plains since children can avoid climbing the mountain. In their spare time, children on different floors can go to the nearby stepped gardens to play and enjoy the vast space, which is not usually available on the flat campus.
The volume of the mountain. When designing buildings together with mountains, the volume of buildings becomes sensitive. A large-volume building can make the mountain seems to be small, a small-volume building can emphasize the existence of the mountain. For the campus in Lingnan, the small volume of buildings is not convenient for application, because the daily contact between buildings requires going downstairs, going upstairs, and going through the outdoors. It is neither convenient nor meets the requirements of all-weather comfort. We need to use design strategies to decompose the volume of architecture. We make each teaching building “independent” by retreating corridors between buildings and hiding them under the stepped platforms. We make two buildings like a combination by arranging the layout of corridor-style teaching buildings. We create a sense of difference in order by inserting two small volumes, the library, and the combined classrooms, between the main square and the main group of buildings. The large volume of buildings is visually decomposed and dispersed to form a scattered building group at the foot of the mountain.
The architecture on the mountain. We designed a sunshade cover, and integrated the air conditioning outdoor units, on the facade of the classroom side of the buildings. The solid walls rise and curl into gabled roofs, then fall to the other side of the buildings and disconnect. The half-wrapped façade naturally transitions into open corridors. The curly slope roof, which means "mountain houses", is vaguely closer to the memory of certain Chinese symbols, while avoiding the impression of sharp gables in the West. "Mountain Houses" is looking for not only harmony in mountains and forests, but also a dialogue with the overall atmosphere of the large-scale cultural tourism project. They should create a unique memory of the campus, which is full of children's interests and imagery. The roof of mountain houses brings an unusual experience to the top floor. One end of the roof is opened to create a small shared space. It is like a view frame of the mountain.
A series of corridor spaces allow buildings and natural forest to penetrate through each other, including the green corridor in the valley, the visual corridor to enjoy the scenery of the mountain, the pedestrian corridors at the foot of the mountain, the verandas at the buildings, and the sightseeing corridors under the slope roofs. In this way, we create a kind of orderliness and complexity of space. The corridors between the teaching buildings are arranged in a zigzag shape around the mountain. It avoids the monotony at first glance. The corridors on each floor are located in different positions. They could lead children directly to the adjacent green platforms. Because of the diverse arrangement of space, the feelings of walking on each floor are different. The campus is not big, but it feels big, which is exactly the spatial consciousness that the design hopes to achieve. Without architects, ancient villages often are in a high degree of harmony with the environment. It is mainly because spontaneous construction usually follows laws of reason and economy, such as avoiding harm, following the trend, using local materials, etc. In this project, our strategies are to solve problems while adapting to the site, so as to create “a group of mountain houses”, which coexist with the environment.
Our scheme was highly appreciated by the client, the government, and evaluation experts. As the project proceeded, it encountered a lot of problems. The construction drawing was once out of control. Tall retaining walls were added once between buildings and the mountain after they were totally separated from each other. Although there are many regrets about the project, thanks to the unconditional support for design from the government over the past few years, and the joint efforts of like-minded people, the project was finally completed construction during the last half of the year. The campus has finished construction and was put into service recently. Flowers and trees on the platforms have just been planted. We look forward to seeing them flourish as if they are spreading all the way from the mountains to the campus.