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24 Dec 2018

A new primary school in Cannes is a calming influence

Words by  Photo by Stephane Aboudaram

The spare travertine construction of a primary school in the South of France offers a steady solidity and calm for its pupils

In a city better known for its red carpet opulence and celebrity glam, there sits a humble piece of architecture, which was built, quite literally, for the next generation.

Designed by Stéphane Fernandez of Atelier Fernandez et Serres, the new Jacqueline de Romilly School is located on a sloped terrain in the French coastal city of Cannes.

As Fernandez explains: “The school is a place of strong memory and anchorage to a territory. Here, the topography becomes the base of the project, like a promontory above the hills.

The framing of the landscape reveals the place, its aesthetics, its history.”

Nestled between Avenue de Grasse and Rue Beaulieu, Jacqueline de Romilly is in fact a complex of two schools that previously laid on two separate plots.

The old 1965 buildings were torn down and the new school, which opened in time for the start of the school year, was built to consolidate kindergarten and primary functions in one location.

And although each school has its own entrance, the new structure shows the architect’s vision of a building unified by virtue of a clever layout.

12 WEARECONTENTS FERNANDEZ GS ROMILLY DSC06268xAn oval indoor balcony overlooks the covered playground. Photo: Stephane Aboudaram

All nine kindergarten classes are situated on one level, while the remaining 14 primary classes are articulated over three levels. In plan view, the building vaguely resembles an I-beam, and the central spine of the school is where the architect has located all shared resources such as the school’s reception area, kitchen and a canteen where up to 590 meals a day can be served.

As for the outdoor spaces, Fernandez explains these are “thought out as a patio open to the landscape [...] and protected by buildings”.

There are two distinctive playground areas – one for kindergarten pupils and another for the older students – as well as a covered playground, which sits under a striking oval-shaped indoor balcony.

Aside from these two playgrounds, the school also comprises a yard peppered with a handful of quintessentially Mediterranean palm trees. And all throughout, the pale hues of rough-sawn travertine stone imbue the space with quietude.

“The material expresses itself through its patina,” says Fernandez, whose love for travertine is also apparent in his design of Cour et Jardin, a cultural centre built in 2015 outside Nantes.

“It evolves without losing its sensitivity, to produce an architecture close to the senses and our perceptions.”

04 WEARECONTENTS FERNANDEZ GS ROMILLY DSC06673xThe outdoor spaces are conceived as a patio protected by buildings. Photo: Stephane Aboudaram

With its pale hues, travertine also seems a fitting choice in a city with a climate typical of the South of France. Fernandez explains that the environment was a strong challenge.

“The idea here is not to use technology and to create a clear and simple architecture that effectively protects climatic elements. So the inertia of the stone brings a protective energy in all seasons.”

To further address the issue, heating systems were minimised and the insulation was reinforced. Ventilation shutters are used to naturally ventilate the space while, “like any old Mediterranean construction, the play of solar protections and openings release the energies”.

By virtue of its stillness and tranquillity, the Jacqueline de Romilly school seems to embody Atelier Fernandez & Serres’ motto “for a silent architecture”. As Fernandez puts it, rather poetically: “Everything here works to create places conducive to silence and contemplation. The school fades to let the movement of the bodies appear.”

He concludes: “It’s about revealing what’s already there, and the Jacqueline de Romilly school reveals the memory, the soft light and a relationship with the soothing landscape. The school wants to be a protected place favourable to the blossoming.”

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