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Photo © Iwan Baan
Giancarlo Mazzanti designs sustainable, low-maintenance facilities for early-childhood development and education.


Timayui and La Paz Preschools

Beacons for a Brighter Future: Progressive ideas about education drive the design of preschools in South America.

By Sara Hart
September 2012

For much of his career, Bogotá-based architect Giancarlo Mazzanti has been developing an architectural model for effectively sustainable, low-maintenance facilities for early-childhood development and education, having completed 12 preschools in various locations in his native Colombia. His brand of architectural practice may be particular to South America, in that he seeks commissions in distressed areas where the very act of building a school symbolizes a community's determination to triumph over debilitating social and political unrest.


Location Santa Marta, Colombia

Completed 2011

Cost $40/ft2


Architect Giancarlo Mazzanti Architects

Design team Susana Somoza, Andres Sarmiento, Nestor Gualteros, Oscar Cano, Lucia Largo

Structural engineer Nicolas Parva

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Timayui and La Paz Preschools
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Giancarlo Mazzanti designs a preschool for a low-income neighborhood outside of Santa Marta on Colombia's Caribbean coast. Video by Juan Carlos Lorza.

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Colombia is no stranger to unrest, even as it benefits from having the third-largest economy in South America, producing coffee, emeralds, oil, and coal. Furthermore, it's recognized as one of the most biodiverse countries in the world. And yet, as a nation, Colombia suffers from a reputation of violence, despite the government's success in the past decade demobilizing guerrillas and paramilitary insurgents and disrupting drug cartels, thus dramatically reducing the number of kidnappings and murders. However, improved security has not reversed the negative effects on people who fled mountain farms and urban centers to escape the violence. The fact remains that hundreds of thousands of displaced citizens still subsist in makeshift settlements on the outskirts of cities.

Santa Marta, a medium-size city on Colombia's Caribbean coast, lives with the remnants of a particularly violent history. Settlements like Timayui and La Paz cling to the city's periphery, providing meager shelter for its displaced citizens. Not much more than shantytowns, these enclaves have little infrastructure, health care, schools, or jobs. The impact on the city became so dire that the mayor of Santa Marta and the Carulla Foundation—the largest granting foundation for early-childhood development in Colombia—combined resources to uncover a way to offer some security, at least for the children who make up a significant proportion of the displaced population and who suffer the most from a lack of basic services. This public-private collaboration enlisted Mazzanti to design environmentally sustainable facilities—one each in Timayui and La Paz—for children ranging in age from infancy to five years. Here they would be guaranteed proper nutrition and stability in an active learning environment.

Mazzanti believes that "architecture is capable of generating actions and learning situations, and we believe the school's spaces are in themselves a learning mechanism." Form and space, visual expanses, piazzas, abundant natural light, and effortless access to the outdoors are the primary elements of a pedagogical environment.

The methodology that drives all of Mazzanti's educational projects is based on the theories and practices of Loris Malaguzzi, an Italian schoolteacher and pioneer in early-childhood development during the second half of the 20th century. The Reggio Emilia approach, named after the region where Malaguzzi lived, maintains that how children develop socially and intellectually from an early age determines what kind of adults they will become. Therefore, learning environments must be consciously designed to cultivate and support independent exploration, social interaction and cooperation, and commitment to the well-being of the larger community.

Mazzanti also seized upon Malaguzzi's insistence that architecture is the "third teacher" by creating an architectural vocabulary that emphasizes neutrality, one that neither confines nor obstructs activities. His is not a blank canvas, but it does deliver an open architecture intended to fuel a child's imagination. His methodology also embraces the adaptability and ecological appeal of repetitive elements that conserve materials. In these cases, the architect has simplified the precedent employed at El Porvenir Kindergarten in Bogotá, where freestanding modules are contained in a smooth oval building for security reasons particular to the neighborhood. At Timayui and La Paz, this strategy takes form as a "daisy chain" in which modules are made up of three pyramidal enclosures surrounding a courtyard and connected by covered walkways. These modules can be duplicated indefinitely, as the terrain allows, in various configurations. Each module contains bathrooms, two classrooms, and a sensory room connected to the outside. Spatial flexibility accommodates a multitude of educational situations, including classrooms, covered outdoor areas, large uncovered courtyards, playgrounds linked to the native ecosystem, and gardens. "Equally essential are small patios, corners, and interstitial spaces where children can gather to play," explains Mazzanti.

The tile-covered pyramids mimic the neighboring mountains, while intervening in the site's specific topography. He says, "We find rules of organization to develop projects by reformulating the relationship between figure and background, an approach in search of alternatives capable of promoting a new natural contract in tune with a landscape and a natural order."

Ultimately, however, form follows function, giving the pyramids an environmental purpose. The soaring interiors serve as passive heat chimneys, creating natural ventilation as warm air near the bottom rises via convection and escapes through outlets at the top. At Timayui, the outlets are operable skylights that modulate the tropical sun and, when open, direct the air out. At La Paz, louvered vents recessed in the sloping exterior walls perform the same function. Both schools are oriented north-south to maximize natural lighting and ventilation. The climate on the coast is hot and dry, with brief downpours for only four months a year, so there is little need to cover the courtyards or play areas. What little rainwater there is, however, is dutifully collected in a cistern. Should there be more water harvested than needed by the school, the excess will be shared with the community.

Construction is basic and cost-effective, relying on regional materials, local labor, and available natural resources. A modular system of prefabricated parts has the added benefit of providing a cost-effective and fast method of construction. According to the architect, a typical 15,600-square-foot program can be completed in seven months for about $40 per square foot. The walls are load-bearing concrete with a prefabricated polystyrene core, a system that maximizes thermal efficiency. The exterior walls are covered with multicolored ceramic tiles in random patterns, which provide a rain barrier and glisten in the sunlight.

There are long-term goals as well. Anything that represents longevity gives some security to those who keep time by daily survival. Children are learning that rainwater is collected for use in bathrooms and to irrigate the gardens. Organic waste will be composted and, when coupled with stored rainwater, will introduce children, parents, and teachers to the fundamentals of urban agriculture—a movement gaining momentum in Mazzanti's hometown of Bogotá, where citizens grow consistent quantities of food seemingly on every available tract of land. Childhood development may actually lead to opportunities for the larger community to contribute to the local ecology and economy as both laborers and consumers. That seems to be the point.

Sustainable practices in distressed regions seem more like the byproducts of scarcity, or doing more with less, and often the limitations seem to drive the design. When viewed out of context, Mazzanti's daisy chains don't qualify as icons as the hypertechnological countries define them. But set against the backdrop of a makeshift shantytown with no services and few opportunities, these white, glistening pyramids dazzle as beacons announcing a better future.


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