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Antonio Derka School by Carlos Pardo, Obranegra, Medellín, Colombia

The challenge for the design of the school was to create a sense of openness and security in a violent neighbourhood. Photography by Sergio Gomez

When Carlos Pardo accepted mayor Sergio Fajardo’s invitation to build a school in Santo Domingo Savio, he was determined to implant it in the community and the precipitous site. The challenge was to combine a sense of openness and security in one of the poorest, most violent neighbourhoods of Medellín, to intergrate the new building with two existing schools down the slope to either side, and to provide gathering places for students and local residents.

The Antonio Derka School is located on the north-east edge of the city, above the Biblioteca de España, and it steps down the escarpment from a main road looking out across the valley. It was part of Fajardo’s programme, ‘Medellín, the most educated,’ to build ten new schools and refurbish 132 existing institutions in the neediest areas. The programme was swiftly realized, and education is the mayor’s most enduring legacy.

Driving up through the barrios, Pardo was impressed by the ingenuity with which poor residents, mostly migrants from the countryside, had turned a collection of hillside shacks into a viable community, linked by bridges and stepped paths. Houses are constantly being improved and added to, and families socialize on rooftop terraces. Pavements are located on only one side of the steep, rutted streets, but, despite the heavy traffic, those narrow pedestrian strips brim with activity. That vitality inspired the design of the school, which has a strong sense of place.

Twenty-four classrooms are located on two levels below the level of the road. As Pardo explains ‘the roof of the building was conceived as a lookout; a place of meeting between the educational community, the neighbourhood and the city. This new, livable geography aims to make the landscape a fundamental part of the students’ everyday experience.’

A steel-framed meeting room is elevated to provide a shady space beneath. A flight of steps links the different levels and extends on to a playing field. The mayor wanted to remove fences and open up the grounds to residents, but security concerns prevailed, and the gate is opened to the public only at weekends, and at the discretion of the custodian.

The muscular poured concrete and block structure is resilient, low-maintenance and withstands hard use from the 2,400 students, aged 10-18, who attend the school in three daily shifts. Vertical wood louvres soften the hard surfaces and block direct sun while allowing views out to the mountains. Openings between each pair of classrooms open up views to either side of the axial corridors, which terminate in covered terraces.

There is a day-care centre with walls of Profilit glass at the base, and all the enclosed areas have abundant natural light and cross ventilation. The cafeteria, labs and administrative offices extend along the hillside to the north. The school has become a showpiece, with a constant trickle of visitors learning from its functional and humane interpretation of the community it serves.

Architect Carlos Pardo Botero, Obranegra Arquitectos, Medellín, Colombia
Project team M Juan Camilo Llano, Alejandro Ochoa, Carlos Holguin, Felipe Campuzano
Structural engineer Wilmar Velez

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