Imagine Montessori School in Valencia is a muted symphony in terracotta and wood

Unique wayfinding, a warm, earthy material expression, and a succinct consideration for student-friendly spaces set this school by Spanish architects Gradolí & Sanz apart.

by Anmol AhujaPublished on : Mar 04, 2022

Earmarked a “global” project in its scope, the Imagine Montessori School achieves a rare brand of distinction and balance in educational architecture intended for younglings. Infrastructure for children, especially schools and other educational institutions, have seen a recent shift in their design language - from an office-like functionality and frugal resourcefulness to one that actually involves a free architectural expression. Even in this kind of renewal, there exists a propensity to gear that aesthetic toward an obvious reflection of its users, through colours, shapes, and even iconification. While India still awaits such a renewal in this realm, the Imagine School by Spanish architects Carmel Gradolí and Arturo and Sanz is an undertaking that impressively defines cordiality in a school setting through rather ‘mature’ architectural discourse. The interesting question then that this architectural intervention raises, for me, is about the universality of good architecture irrespective of typology.

  • The second phase of the project will expand the facility to host more functions and spaces, both interior and exterior | Imagine Montessori School | Gradolí and Sanz | STIRworld
    The second phase of the project will expand the facility to host more functions and spaces, both interior and exterior Image: Mariela Apollonio
  • Children enter the school by crossing the pine forest through raised wooden walkways, peeking at the school through treetops | Imagine Montessori School | Gradolí and Sanz | STIRworld
    Children enter the school by crossing the pine forest through raised wooden walkways, peeking at the school through treetops Image: Mariela Apollonio

The building is located amid the residential strip of Valterna in Paterna, Valencia, and the En Dolça ravine. The architects here chose to retain the texture of the land caught between the built and unbuilt by avoiding excessive landscaping, and peppering the site with shrubbery instead of trimmed hedges. Roots, trunks, branches, dry leaves, pine cones, asparagus in spring, and wild mushrooms in autumn line the school’s exterior spaces, complemented by the torrential rushing of rainwater in the ravine. The unique location of the site begets a rather bold yet intelligent measure, of placing the site entrance towards the riverside instead of facing the city, potentially avoiding congestion along the arterial roads, while providing the students an avenue to enter their institution of learning with a sense of natural wonder. “Children do not disappear behind a wrought iron gate; there is a transition and a preparatory journey to get to school, and the city vanishes behind,” states the team at Gradolí & Sanz. Children now enter the school by crossing a pine forest through raised wooden walkways, peeking at the school through treetops. Meanwhile, the natural ravenous landscape also doubles up as a waiting and resting place for parents waiting to pick up their children. The ravine is thus incorporated into the project as a prime natural element, cited as the backbone of the territory. 

  • The interiors are marked by a distinct materiality imparted by unadorned terracotta bricks and wood | Imagine Montessori School | Gradolí and Sanz | STIRworld
    The interiors are marked by a distinct materiality imparted by unadorned terracotta bricks and wood Image: Mariela Apollonio
  • The project carefully tends to the scale of its primary users - the children | Imagine Montessori School | Gradolí and Sanz | STIRworld
    The project carefully tends to the scale of its primary users - the children Image: Mariela Apollonio
  • The warm and natural tonality of the materials is amenable for the kids | Imagine Montessori School | Gradolí and Sanz | STIRworld
    The warm and natural tonality of the materials is amenable for the kids Image: Mariela Apollonio

The planning of the main school building occurs in a unitary manner, with each of the ‘units’ connected overarchingly in the form of an ‘S’ shape in plan. Each of the folds of the ‘S’ seemingly ensconces and configures an exterior space: the access plaza to the west through the ravines, and a playground to the east. This is based on the premise that two exterior spaces with two different orientations provide greater flexibility than a single space. The western side of the site, however, achieves a dominance in planning owing to the presence of the ravine, with each of the classrooms overlooking the natural feature and the pine forests. In fact, much in accordance with the principles of a Montessori school shunning formal teaching methods, the classrooms have no blackboards or teacher’s table, while the visual connection with nature is seen as the protagonist and driving force behind the learning process.

  • The school and its programs comprise five classrooms that students have free access to according to their interests | Imagine Montessori School | Gradolí and Sanz | STIRworld
    The school and its programs comprise five classrooms that students have free access to according to their interests Image: Mariela Apollonio
  • The structures are capped by a three-threaded solid brick vault | Imagine Montessori School | Gradolí and Sanz | STIRworld
    The structures are capped by a three-threaded solid brick vault Image: Mariela Apollonio

Students are given free access to all the five classrooms according to their interests, divided into the sensory area, practical life area, language area, maths area and cultural studies area. Each of the classrooms is entered into through a lobby with lockers and benches where the children can take off their shoes and remove their coats, earmarked by a considerably proportionate low-rise arch in the wall, tending to the scale of its users. This is further implemented in a number of nooks and small spaces spread through the project: lofts above the toilets in the classrooms, beneath the landings of the stairs, and next to windows at floor level prove to be sanctuaries for the young, curious mind, with the scale of the space perfectly complementing the younglings.

  • The school’s design incorporates spaces that are not accessible by adults and transforms them into corners of creativity for children | Imagine Montessori School | Gradolí and Sanz | STIRworld
    The school’s design incorporates spaces that are not accessible by adults and transforms them into corners of creativity for children Image: Mariela Apollonio
  • A sunken court at the entrance of one of the classroom units | Imagine Montessori School | Gradolí and Sanz | STIRworld
    A sunken court at the entrance of one of the classroom units Image: Mariela Apollonio

The fluid ‘S’ layout lends more than a meandering form on the outside, proving to be an exceptionally functional connector moving from one ‘cellular’ space to another. “The project grows like an organism, as each cell takes on its own shape according to its needs and then rejoins and interacts with the other cells,” remarks the design team. Each of the classrooms is further complemented externally by a covered terrace, a small amphitheatre, a fountain and a deciduous tree, a setting that is entirely enticing even for adults. Jovially, the deciduous tree is cited as an “additional classmate” for the kids, changing and flailing with the weather as the students directly interact with it. Furthermore, the school comes alive through the “in-between” spaces, shedding light on the considerable design measures imparted to even ancillary and circulatory spaces. Triple height vertical spaces, dubbed “solar collectors” are placed centrally to provide a visual cross-connection between classrooms. An agora facing the exterior rounds up this array of spaces.

  • Each of the classrooms is further complemented externally by a covered terrace | Imagine Montessori School | Gradolí and Sanz | STIRworld
    Each of the classrooms is further complemented externally by a covered terrace Image: Mariela Apollonio
  • Steel is only sparingly used in pillars, railings, and trellises | Imagine Montessori School | Gradolí and Sanz | STIRworld
    Steel is only sparingly used in pillars, railings, and trellises Image: Mariela Apollonio
  • Spaces that encourage student interaction are central to the design | Imagine Montessori School | Gradolí and Sanz | STIRworld
    Spaces that encourage student interaction are central to the design Image: Mariela Apollonio

Despite virtually every corner of the built project designed with a meticulous hand, the materiality is what imparts the project a neutral yet timeless appeal. Almost entirely composed of terracotta and wood, materials with a much smaller ecological footprint, with concrete limited only to foundations, and steel only in pillars and railings, the project professes a certain purity in expression. Sans plastering, false ceilings or floors, and panelling, the structure is held up by two-feet thick load bearing walls made with perforated brick, assuming the rich red appearance of terracotta, while being capped by a three-threaded solid brick vault. Echoing the same warm tonality, wood lines slatted panels on walls and the ceiling, along with the carpentry of doors and windows. “The building itself is the first didactic material of the school,” concludes the design team.

  • Two-feet thick load bearing walls made with perforated brick compose the school’s facade without any ornamentation | Imagine Montessori School | Gradolí and Sanz | STIRworld
    Two-feet thick load bearing walls made with perforated brick compose the school’s facade without any ornamentation Image: Mariela Apollonio
  • The green roof on the terrace of the structure is termed a “meadow that will descend” | Imagine Montessori School | Gradolí and Sanz | STIRworld
    The green roof on the terrace of the structure is termed a “meadow that will descend” Image: Mariela Apollonio
  • The second phase of the project will expand the facility to host more functions and spaces, both interior and exterior | Imagine Montessori School | Gradolí and Sanz | STIRworld
    The second phase of the project will expand the facility to host more functions and spaces, both interior and exterior Image: Mariela Apollonio

Visualised in a phased manner, the first phase of the Imagine Montessori School, featured here, comprises 10 classrooms, kitchen spaces, facilities, and storage spaces. The second phase will expand the facility to host a more expansive entrance along with administration spaces, teachers’ rooms, and meeting rooms.

  • Imagine Montessori School: Floor Plans | Imagine Montessori School | Gradolí and Sanz | STIRworld
    Imagine Montessori School: Floor Plans Image: Courtesy of Gradolí and Sanz arquitectes
  • Imagine Montessori School: Elevations | Imagine Montessori School | Gradolí and Sanz | STIRworld
    Imagine Montessori School: Elevations Image: Courtesy of Gradolí and Sanz arquitectes
  • Imagine Montessori School: Sections | Imagine Montessori School | Gradolí and Sanz | STIRworld
    Imagine Montessori School: Sections Image: Courtesy of Gradolí and Sanz arquitectes

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