Once upon a time, there was a construction cooperative in the small north Italian town of Correggio, not far from the larger cities of Modena and Parma. It specialised in building houses. One day, back in 1990, its members made a decision that would radically change the way they worked.
Taking on the new name, Andria – inspired by an ideal city in Italo Calvino’s novel, Invisible Cities – they transformed it from a cooperative for abitazioni (habitations) into a cooperative for abitanti (inhabitants). One of Andria’s founding architects, Luciano Pantaleoni, says this was something of a revolution, “We had to learn to listen to the service-users, in other words, families”.
Taking their logic one step further, Andria decided that, since families comprise both adults and children, to be a true cooperative for inhabitants, they would have to listen to children as well as adults. And that’s how the idea to build Coriandoline was born.
Consulting the kids
The first phase began in 1995 with a research project involving 700 children from 12 local nursery and infant schools. 50 teachers and 2 child psychologists worked together with a group of 20 architects, engineers, surveyors, builders and carpenters: talking to the children, taking them on trips to learn about architecture, encouraging them to draw, building models with them.
Since there was no specific school curriculum for that age group, classes could devote the whole academic year to the project. Ilaria Ligabue, who was 5 years old when the research phase began, has fond memories of the experience:
“We drew loads and gave free reign to our imagination. We even painted on real small wooden houses which became our play area. It was a great adventure for us kids.”
Four years later, having transcribed hours of conversations and collated and processed all the material and information gathered during the initial phase, the Manifesto of Children’s Living Needs was published. The manifesto is a synthesis, a distillation, of the most popular needs and desires commonly expressed by those 700 children as to how they would like their ideal house to be. Ten essential features ranging from ‘transparent’, ‘hard outside’ and ‘soft inside’ to ‘playful’, ‘decorated’ and ‘magical’.
Turning children’s abstract fantasies into concrete reality was the next step, one which was by no means an easy task for Luciano Pantaleoni and his colleagues, “When we started the planning phase, we realised we faced an enormous risk. On the one hand we could have fallen into the trap of creating something banal – houses that looked just like all new houses, with token ‘corrections’ providing superficial concessions. On the other hand we could have gone to the opposite extreme and end up creating a sort of fairytale playground which had no meaning as a part of the town. We wanted to create an area which could be exploited and enjoyed by the whole community, but which used children’s experiences and needs as a parameter for quality.”
Coriandoline consists of 20 homes built around a central square: 10 houses and a block of 10 apartments. There’s also a community building in one corner. For Luciano Pantaleoni and his colleagues, some of the children’s requests were easier to meet than others, “To create ‘transparent’ houses, we made sure that all the living rooms have a lot of wide windows with no security bars and in other rooms we added an extra panel beneath the windowsills so that children could see outside. Creating ‘magical’ houses was a big challenge! We tried to do this by using elements of surprise, volume, transparency, colour and uniqueness. We did find some contradictions, especially in the children’s desire for houses that are ‘hard outside’ and ‘soft inside’ but we found solutions that all the families were happy with.”
Luciano Pantaleoni says the feature they devoted most importance to in Coriandoline’s design was the concept of play. “All the children said they wanted their ideal home to be fun, in a place where they could play freely. Everywhere you go in Italy, the most common sign you’ll see is NO FOOTBALL ALLOWED. Honestly, you’d think playing football was the most dangerous thing a child could do!”. In Coriandoline, children are allowed to play in all the communal areas, including the garages – which double up as covered playground areas. With their entrances that look like the mouths of giant monsters, the garages are buried under hills that the children can play on. The hills have been planted with a specially selected combination of plants to give them different coloured leaves and flowers to see and scents to sniff all year round. Inside the apartment block there are slides alongside each flight of stairs and distorting funfair-style mirrors in the lift.
Emphasis has also been given to colour and decoration. The walls of the houses are vibrant shades of blue, pink, orange, yellow and green; with giant flowers, birds, butterflies and smiling children painted on them. The decorations are the work of the renowned Italian painter, illustrator, and set designer, Emanuele Luzzati. He died last year, but not before seeing his designs reproduced from the models to the real walls of the buildings.
Each house has its own, very specific identity revealed in its name, for example, The House with the Roof Held up By Trees or The House with the Studio over the Lane. Some buyers got more involved than others in creating their home’s identity, like the lady who bought The Castle House and requested additions to make it even more castle-like. Although the design of Coriandoline was limited to the buildings’ exteriors, some of the residents -like Ilaria Ligabue’s family – have created interior décor to continue their property’s theme inside. So, when Ilaria opens the door to The House with the Precious Stones, it’s a bit like stepping into Aladdin’s cave.
Now 18 years old, Ilaria has been living in Coriandoline since the development was completed two years ago. Initially amazed that her childhood ideas could have been transformed into a real living space, Ilaria says she was even more struck by the fact that it could be as appealing to adults as it is to children. Although not everyone has entered into the spirit of the development with as much enthusiasm as her family, she still believes the colours, the decorations and the uniqueness of Coriandoline’s design have a positive effect on the inhabitants,
“When we came to live here, we organised a massive party, inviting all the families. We still like to organize lunches together. Even if not everyone gets on, we all have something in common.” And even residents who don’t have children appreciate their design ideas. Gino Neviani, a single man who lives in one of the apartments, says the main reason he came to live in Coriandoline was because the neighbourhood is so quiet. He’s got 700 infant school pupils to thank for that: ‘peaceful’ was one of their top ten essential requirements.