In Carlo Collodi’s Pinocchio, published in Italian in 1883, the puppet reunites with his father in the belly of a giant whale, a metaphor for a mother’s womb. The scene inspired Bologna, Italy–based Mario Cucinella Architects (MCA) to craft a continuous volume of open play spaces defined by cutouts made in a series of 50 wall planes, or ribs, for a nursery school in Guastalla, a town in northern Italy.
The rectangular larch glulam portal frames, spaced approximately 4.5 feet apart, define the exterior of the 230-foot-long southern half of the 15,000-square-foot facility. Matching glulam roof and wall fins give the appearance of the frames projecting beyond the building's glazed envelope. Inside, the whimsical curves appear to continue into the oak flooring, creating play surfaces and half-pipe-like slides that students can climb. “Every element,” says MCA founder Mario Cucinella, “takes into account the pedagogical and educational [needs] related to the growth of the child, from the shape and the organization of the interior, to the choice of materials.” The wood not only offers students myriad tactile and sensory experiences, but also as a connection to a nearby forest.
In elevation, the 16-centimeter-thick glulam frames appear to be carved from a single block of wood when they actually comprise three primary pieces—a 15-foot-tall exterior column, an 11-foot-tall interior column, and a 59-foot-long beam—that were assembled on site. The beams span over the interior column of the portal frame to top the northern half of the school building. MCA used generative algorithms in Grasshopper and Rhino to create the unique cutout shape in each frame. To maintain structural integrity, the team fixed the shape of the wall bases from the floor to 3.5 feet above finished floor and specified that columns had to at least 1 foot wide. “The last parameter was ‘aesthetics,’ but there’s no command for it in Grasshopper,” Cucinella says.
For the beam-to-column joint, MCA worked with Bressanone, Italy–based timber fabricator and supplier Rubner Holzbau to detail a connection of embedded threaded rods in the glulam wood that bolts to the roof. “No metallic element is visible,” Cucinella says. The glulam columns are braced with steel rods for lateral stability and seismically isolated from the concrete foundation with metal “shoes,” which are then anchored to the foundation.
Fabricators used CNC machines to cut the glulam beams and columns, but Cucinella says the equipment was not accurate enough to navigate the curves at each beam-to-column and column-to-floor joint without the risk of ripping the wood at these thin transition points. Instead, the wedges were cut separately, which also help ensure the frames' safe transport to the site. The wedges, which taper to a fraction of an inch, were then finished with a triangular piece of larch.
The school was originally housed in two facilities, both of which were badly damaged in earthquakes that struck the country in May 2012. During the rebuilding effort, classes were held in the local city hall. “[The nursery] was built with some urgency,” Cucinella says. Once the project began construction, in 2015, completing the school took just eight months.
The school has become a symbol of pride and resilience for the region and, perhaps more importantly, it instills in students a sense of wonder and appreciation for the environment. On-site photovoltaic panels and rainwater collection, for example, have cut energy and water consumption to half of that expected in a baseline building. “Raising new generations of individuals who will know how to face the environmental challenges of tomorrow,” Cucinella says, “is a fundamental part of the educational project.”