by Akash SinghAug 15, 2023
In the diversity of Latin America, now a forefront site of counter-hegemonic processes, the educational realm has witnessed a profound transformation and reform, fostering an indigenous intercultural movement. Simultaneously, the region’s architectural practices have earned acclaim for their innovative use of local building techniques, materials, and design principles, which demonstrate acute responsiveness to the environment, climate and culture. Amidst this backdrop, the architectural vocabulary has also embraced a contemporary interpretation of passive vernacular design propositions, boldly contrasting with conventional school designs. In this context-conscious approach to educational spaces, a remarkable project stands as a beacon of change—Initial School 140, a nursery school situated in the arid expanse between the Peruvian city of Ica and Paracas. Conceived and brought to life through the collaboration of visionary architects Betsaida Curto Reyes and Ander Bados Sesma, this project redefines concepts of education, community learning, and knowledge, as it reinvents a new approach to school architecture while celebrating the cultural significance of its site.
Villacurí stands as a hidden gem, often overlooked by passersby on the Panamericana Sur highway. At first glance, the town may appear sparsely populated, with modest shops made of mats and a solitary toll booth selling local wares. Yet, upon closer inspection, one finds a vibrant community, labouring tirelessly in nearby agro-export companies from sunrise to sunset. Drawing inspiration from the town's deep-rooted environment, the architects — Betsaids Curto Reyes of Spanish architecture firm Estudio Copla and Ander Bados Sesma, co-founder of architecture firm AMAO estudio — have artfully incorporated various textures and materials, including mats, olive trees, wild cane, yuccas, and earth, to create a soulful representation of the community.
Elaborating more on the inspiration, Curto Reyes tells STIR, "Having worked on several projects in neglected areas of Peru, we wanted to continue with our aesthetic and respect for local materials and traditions. Persisting with this style, the design formed rapidly, working closely with the local community to create an understanding of homegrown resources and construction methods. Combining all this knowledge, we could form a well-balanced and high aesthetic conception."
Furthermore, working on the scale and nature of the project, Curto Reyes says, "Primarily we wanted to focus on what was necessary. We aspired to build a school for many children in a part of the country which has been seriously overlooked by its government. We hoped to provide some dignity to the children's education, without any pretensions, understanding that functionality came before form. Accepting the challengingly desert climate was equally significant, notably, we had to safeguard the school with earthquake-resistant design and form cooling systems in the classrooms, shading the children from the blistering daytime heat. Working on a limited budget we sought to create a clean minimalistic design, highlighting the beauty of the zero-kilometre materials used in construction. We hoped to soften the effect of concrete by making it more approachable for the children attending the school.”
The plot undergoes adjustments, resulting in a thoughtfully designed grid of spaces with harmonious proportions, weaving an intricate play of solids and voids. Within this well-crafted canvas, seven classrooms and a service building find their place amidst the solid elements, comprising essential facilities such as bathrooms, a kitchen, and spaces for teachers. In contrast, the voids materialise as three distinct spaces that seamlessly integrate with the buildings, endowing the plot with a sense of relief and balance. The voids comprise an amphitheatre, a multifunctional space destined for games, open-air classes, and community gatherings, nurturing the spirit of togetherness. A vast patio, with gentle shades of light, metamorphoses into an outdoor psychomotor classroom, fostering a dynamic environment for physical and cognitive development. Beneath a grand canopy of cane brava and wood is an outdoor dining room offering a communal space. These spaces are well complemented by essential features like shadows, benches, and olive trees, thereby culminating into classrooms without walls.
The constructive response stems from a community deeply attuned to the value of its environment. A common thread that binds these constructions together is the intentional use of uncoated materials for economic reasons. Embracing this ethos as a guiding concept, the educational architecture advocates for the promotion of materials in their natural state—exposed brick, concrete, mat, cane brava, and wood. This mindful approach not only leads to substantial cost savings but also bestows a heightened sense of significance upon the building. The authenticity of these materials fosters a strong sense of identity within the community, elevating local construction methods to a state of dignity and respect.
While attributing to spatial flexibility, a pressing challenge faced by the architects is combating extreme desert temperatures. To address this, the team reinterprets the traditional Ica roofs, known for their effectiveness in providing insulation. In a clever design innovation, a continuous plane of cane brava is placed beneath the concrete slab, creating an air chamber that serves as a natural temperature regulator. In conjunction with strategic cross ventilation, this thoughtful approach significantly reduces the interior temperatures, ensuring orderly and permeable spaces.
Talking about incorporating unique features, Curto Reyes further tells STIR, "The local area has very little natural shelter from the scorching heat throughout the year, so we had to create it within the construction itself. With very little access to air conditioning, we managed to find a way to decrease the temperature inside the classrooms. By constructing two roofs with a ventilated chamber running through them we managed to achieve it in a sustainable and ecological way. One of the roofs had the ability to further expand outwards giving further shade to the windows and building.”
The exterior perimeter of the building is drawn from the surrounding existing structures, where traditional mats crafted by local artisans serve as closures. Embracing sustainability and local heritage, the project incorporates these time-honoured materials into its design. However, considering the need for enhanced security, a more robust perimeter wall was devised—a concrete base for added strength, complemented by an upper structure constructed from wood and cane, skilfully supporting and integrating the traditional mats.
Conveying the challenges of the project, Curto Reyes concludes, "We had to come up with a strategic layout design where we decided to manipulate the limited plot by linking individual buildings with outdoor spaces. During the pandemic, construction was put on hold for almost a year. Whilst these delays naturally set us back, when returning to the site we wanted to emphasise this strange chapter. Once we began building again, we reintroduced new textures to show the path of what everyone had experienced.”
The project is a significant undertaking spearheaded by the NGO AHAH, as they embarked on an initiative to assess and rebuild schools in the Ica region that remained unreconstructed since the 2007 earthquake. Throughout the process, the project fostered active involvement from the local community, emphasising the training of local agents and the invaluable contribution of international volunteers. Inclusive participation, without discrimination based on gender, age, social class, or origin, has been a cornerstone of the project's philosophy. From the initial design to the meticulous execution and ongoing follow-up, the collaboration has yielded a building that stands tall with dignity and an unmistakable sense of identity, generated from the common good.
Name: Initial School 140
Location: Santa Cruz de Villacuri, Salas, Ica Desert, Peru
Architects: Betsaida Curto Reyes (Estudio Copla) and Ander Bados Sesma (Atelier Ander Bados)
Total Floor Area: 760 Sq.M
Completion Year: 2022
Local Design Team: Huber Grabiel Canchis Agreda, Giordana Ch’aska Quispe, Claudia Hervias