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El Porvenir Kindergarten by Giancarlo Mazzanti, Bogotá, Colombia

Giancarlo Mazzanti’s inventive, low-cost kindergarten in edge-condition Bogotá has a much wider social mission. Photography by Iwan Baan

On the outskirts of the Colombian capital of Bogotá, where unplanned settlements accumulate like flotsam, Giancarlo Mazzanti has designed a new kindergarten for local children. Embedded in a drab and gimcrack landscape of breeze-block houses, the crisply articulated contours of Mazzanti’s building strike a resilient note in a neighbourhood assailed by the corrosive effects of poverty and violence.

Based in Bogotá, Mazzanti is part of a younger generation of idealistic yet intensely pragmatic Colombian architects who have been galvanised by the political and social initiatives of Sergio Fajardo.

Now the Green Party vice-presidential candidate in this year’s Colombian elections, Fajardo is a mathematics professor and former mayor of Medellín, the famously lawless epicentre of Colombia’s drug trade. In tandem with the Grupo Compromiso Ciudadano (Citizens’ Commitment Movement) founded by Fajardo over 10 years ago, the problems of Colombia’s fractured society are being addressed through physical means, by improvements to the built environment.

Over the years a series of new schools, museums, libraries and public spaces have been constructed in the major cities of Medellín, Bogotá and Cartagena. The initiative is ongoing and increasing in momentum.

Attracting a younger generation of architects keen to engage in a more socially responsive discourse, the programme’s high-quality, low-cost architecture catalyses a sense of public spiritedness and dignity in communities once regarded as beyond the reach of civil society. The outcome is truly transformatory.

‘What we’ve done is build new symbols, new spaces where social mobilisation can take place around architecture,’ says Fajardo. ‘People are always saying “That’s just cement”. That’s just not true.’ Mazzanti’s largest and most significant building to date is the España Library in Medellín, an assemblage of three stone-clad ‘hives’ on a steep hillside. In edge-condition Bogotá the brief is more modest, but no less challenging in how to create welcoming, secure spaces for learning in a harsh and unregulated urban environment.

To speed construction and keep costs down, Mazzanti has developed a modular classroom unit capable of being applied to most school projects. Monotony is avoided by varying how the units are arranged on site, as well as the form and character of interstitial patios, play areas and gardens.

At El Porvenir Kindergarten, five classroom units are sprinkled across the site apparently at random, like giant dice, yet they are also interconnected through a kinked circulation spine. Classrooms are simple two-storey concrete boxes, glazed at the ends.

An oval enclosure wraps around the edge of the cluster of classrooms, creating a landscaped enclave where children can play safely. Fabricated from a lattice of angled steel poles, the enclosure is visually permeable yet physically secure.

Schools in Colombia tend to be fenced off from the public realm, but this reinterprets the conventional notion of a barrier. On its inner edge it becomes a curved colonnade, with long benches for sitting and socialising. The white-painted poles have a sculptural quality, like filaments, and the structure’s gentle but protective embrace gives the project a distinct civic presence.

The school also contains a number of public spaces, such as a multi-purpose room, a children’s club, and a kitchen and dining area. These are contained in two blocks set outside the curved enclosure to preserve the intimacy and security of the inner classrooms. In this way the school becomes a more ingrained part of the community, giving impetus to its wider mission of social renewal.

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