’900 Architectures in steel
The building that Bruno Morassutti designed for IBM in Novedrate (1970-74) was awarded in 1975 by CECM with the European Award for the Best Metal Construction, and is an icon of steel architecture from the 1970s.
This work can be defined as an instant classic, i.e. a building that was already iconic right from its conception, with a design research into the use of different materials some of which were innovative both for the era and their use, like corten steel.
The building complex is designed for training and housing the company’s technical staff, and is situated on a vast area near to the town of Novedrate (Como), where an 18th century villa used to stand in a mature park. The complex covers 23,000 square meters, spread over a series of buildings whose design shows the various activities which are carried out inside (teaching, study, refreshments, leisure and rest).
The project has a different concept to the current idea of environmental blending of buildings, and is developed following the natural flow of the land in a relationship of uncamouflaged permeation.
The work is a building feature that fits into the area interpreting the many facets of nature that enter the building, thanks to this design which offers an excellent view from the inside out.
The two-storey building stands at the north entrance, with the entrance lobby and the data processing centre on the ground floor, the latter being essential to transmit the video lessons to the classrooms and the closed-circuit videoconferences, and with offices on the first floor.
A square central courtyard is the fulcrum that links the buildings, which develop along two parallel pedestrian entrances (which were also indicated in the original project), with the buildings hosting the joint activities, one of these partly built into the ground.
The complex stands out for the repetition of the three-storey building which houses 24 bedrooms each with private bathroom, for a total of 240 single rooms and 23 rooms for company directors, which are formed by joining two single room modules.
The basic module is formed of two suspended and overlapping cubes, which house the bedrooms, and three reinforced concrete supporting towers, two at the sides and one in the centre, which contain the service stairways and lifts.
The main façade on the towers is made from vertical steel elements, and is similar to the design of certain IBM computers and calculators.
In construction terms, the two residential buildings are supported by two steel girders on each of the three storeys, with two symmetrical side wings and a core reinforced with metal plate transoms. The girders are 70 cm high and drilled in a number of places for passing the plant and wiring through, and they are the only supports for a construction mesh of five vertical frames held by tie-beams and reinforced by prefabricated reinforced concrete block floors.
The residential blocks communicate by a central corridor on each storey, and beneath them is the teaching area with the classrooms on a single raised floor. On the ground and basement floors of this section, there are horizontal corridors that are joined to those in the vertical towers, developing the two parallel bodies which are offset by one floor with respect to each other.
The bearing structure is partly formed by a series of two-floor vertical frames placed at intervals of 15 meters, with are fixed to the base by plates welded to the mullions and bolted onto concrete plinths, which support the main metal (supporting) girders, and partly by girders that are fixed to the reinforced concrete walls in the towers, alternatively with fixed and mobile supports (neoprene sheets). This way, every 31 meters there is a longitudinal expansion joint.
The girders and prefabricated reinforced concrete floor blocks are assembled by means of a system of binding posts welded to the top wing of the girder, and a final completing cast of concrete. The blocks are narrower at the points where they join the supports.
The basement floor on the valley side houses the cafeteria, kitchens, living room and storerooms.
The structure is formed of corten steel cruciform columns and bearing girders that enable overhanging the roof, meaning that perimeter windows that continue for the entire height of the building can be used.
The lower-ground level on the southern side of the courtyard contains the data processing centre and teaching laboratories beneath a grassed roof, the same as for the double-height auditorium and the gym on the opposite side.
In the IBM Instruction Centre, now seat of the Ecampus Telematic University, Morassutti shows a philosophy of using the spaces addressed to individual centrality and attention paid to the details.
The internal spatial layout and relationship between the various spaces and the needs for privacy, which are screened using stable furnishings, is based on a modular grid pattern.
The design of the single construction elements and custom-made furnishings, such as the bathrooms in the rooms, is an unusual project feature for the time, especially for such large buildings.
The wide use of continuous windows is a very distinctive feature of the project and therefore the frames are a very important composition element, but unfortunately certain technological solutions were used that do not focus on energy saving because of the particularly low energy costs of those years.
In the renovation the steel profile frames are designed following a modular programme to enable prefabricated production.
The modular design for the complex is also shown in the modular nature of the windows, which on the outside have fibreglass and PVC fabric blinds of different colours (dark blue or yellow), depending on the interior rooms and their functions.
The façades of the residential cubes are entirely covered in corten steel sheets, and follow a square mesh design, created by the recessed window frames for the rooms, which extends over the entire surface of the walls, and provides the bedrooms with a view of the natural surrounding landscape.
Structurally, the project is interesting for the use of the different materials (steel, reinforced concrete, prestressed reinforced concrete and brickwork), exploiting the mechanical features of each material according to its position and function, following the same architectural logic seen so far.
The brick walls are only used in certain underground and protected areas, while the more enduring materials, like corten steel and reinforced concrete, are used on the outside.
The project also considers the contrast between the different structural materials, where the slender corten steel plates that cover the façade of the residential blocks, the concrete used on the towers and the glass-steel frames all emphasise the question of endurance according to the construction role of each feature, but with a structural philosophy that probably has never been seen before on such large buildings.
By Lucio Bonafede and Francesca Emma
Acciaio Arte Architettura 52