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Modular Genetics by Ctrl G

A team of two architects has created a classroom module to deliver Medellín’s new kindergartens. The first completed pair show the system’s potential for variety and sensitivity to context

Medellín in Colombia is crossed by most of the great planetary issues: inequity, misery, war, drugs, arms trafficking, forced displacement, ecological instability and life in the favelas. It is a city with plenty of green, but physically and socially segregated, and arranged to favour vehicular traffic rather than pedestrians. This is why it is the perfect place to practise social initiatives of all types.

Historically, in Medellín it has been easy to take advantage of crises: it has often been difficult to discriminate between real attempts to relieve problems, simple broken promises and unconsidered exploitation. Nevertheless, and thanks to the previous two mayors (Sergio Fajardo, 2004-2007, and Alonso Salazar, 2008-2011) it is true to say today’s city is not only a complex social laboratory, but a territory for architectural and urban experimentation too.

Under Fajardo’s and Salazar’s leadership, Medellín invested most of its budget in programmes and projects in the poor, informal and peripheral neighbourhoods of the city’s mountains. Systematic physical interventions (library parks, schools, sports grounds, urban walkways and so on) have eased poverty, inequity and lack of opportunities for decent housing, public space and educational environments.

Medellín has designed and built this collection of public architecture through a double strategy: strengthening the Empresa de Desarrollo Urbano (EDU), the office of urban development; and with a policy of public calls for projects.

The first is disposed to manage, improve and reform the existing city and to agree on new projects with communities; the second is to guarantee quality architecture within new infrastructures. This dual strategy has been so successful that it has set a benchmark nationally and for other developing countries accustomed to underestimating architecture’s potential to effect social change.

Over the past eight years, Medellín has carried out experiments, with good and bad results, but above all it has accomplished trials. These efforts have gained the support of sister cities that suffer similar problems, and the successes have been replicated. And while programmes such as the library park are now repeated in Brazil, the city continues to try out new ideas. Such an initiative − and the subject of this article − is one of Salazar’s principal projects: A Good Start.

This involves building high-quality kindergartens that − instead of weakening informal neighbourhoods; instead of creating a tabula rasa and enforcing social and urban cleansing; and instead of forcing people to move continuously to find basic services − actually strengthen public structures and the presence of the municipality. Integrating pre-school education at a fundamental and familial level, they employ and train local mothers and turn them into qualified teachers. The kindergartens provide buildings and community services that solve problems for local people.

The kindergartens serve children from birth to the age of five. They are built in the mountains around the valley, where the mothers − most of whom are single parents, heads of families, or young widows − go to work in the daytime. Before the kindergartens were built, the children would have been left with their grandmothers or neighbours. Designed for some of the most vulnerable children in the city, the Good Start initiative not only coordinates institutions as educational centres but also as places where good nutrition and health are guaranteed.

The kindergarten system of the municipality is co-authored by two practices Ctrl G (led by Catalina Patiño, Viviana Peña and Eliana Beltran) and Plan B Arquitectos (led by Federico Mesa, who happens to be my brother). They originally won the bids for two kindergartens, in San Antonio de Prado and Pajarito La Aurora, which are shown here. Completed this summer, the EDU liked the proposals so much that it is using the same scheme to design and build 10 more. Of those 10, the Ctrl G and Plan B are designing two more, Carpinelo and Santo Domingo Savio, to be completed next year.

Working with the EDU, the projects mix classic architectural design with activities that are sometimes less visible but which have a high impact in the less-favoured neighbourhoods: agreements with the community and social pacts. These buildings are not loose pieces disconnected from the urban and social weave; but rather form part of so-called Integral Urban Plans (IUPs), which take whole neighbourhoods and activate social interventions on various scales: linking them to the integrated transport system, carrying out reforms in schools, improving housing, constructing library parks, enhancing public spaces, cleaning up the rivers and streams, building police and security centres and inaugurating business development centres.

The two kindergartens in San Antonio de Prado and Pajarito La Aurora are organic buildings which share a common floor plan and the repetition of a modular classroom in the form of a petal, yet they adapt in different ways to their respective topography. In so doing, they are simultaneously systematic and singular. The geographical placement of the buildings is interesting, too, because of various spatial turns involved, the combination of different inclinations of classroom roofs and the vibrant undulations of the terrain on which they stand. The roofs constitute the most interesting images of these small educational groups, becoming in a way another facade due to their position on the steep mountainsides.

The principal element of these architectural groups is the concrete canopy. This strip follows the circulation routes, hiding differences in floor levels and linking groups of classrooms. The canopy gathers together the turns and inclinations of the classrooms and their roofs; it adds unity to the volumes and gives them scale; it keeps them low to suit their function.

These canopies seem to control everything: they open up space for the classrooms, giving them height; they open up to the landscape, with numerous windows featuring coloured and different-sized glazing; they allow the body of the building to traverse the gardens and they include the services and eateries. When necessary, they separate from the classroom volume and turn into fluid walkways framed by gardens. Though the classroom modules adapt to different platforms, the canopies both horizontally stitch them together and separate them.

This is why the section of the classrooms is a surprise, especially when two or more classrooms are joined. The reduced scale of these kindergartens created by the canopies is reinforced by the doors, columns, toilets and sinks, and by the soft concrete spaces that constitute the architectural groupings to generate a childlike and fun atmosphere.

These kindergartens are rich places in small spaces. Turns and connections open up the possibilities for play and allow for multiple experiences. The extensive openings in the facades are intended to bring the children closer to the gardens and tropical vegetation.

The designers used the slogan ‘the kindergarten of gardens’ and, in their terms, the exterior space is thought out in the same way as the interior.

A net of polygons drawn in floor plan delineates both the classrooms and the gardens, with each polygon being seen as equivalent. The roofs, which are covered with synthetic grass, could have been planted but were not, partly for bureaucratic reasons, partly for maintenence.

The idea of planting a real garden while the kindergarten was under construction belies an underlying principle, as if the order established by architecture should also promote a natural order. The effect is to create real civic centres, giving them a wider range of uses and greater utility and recognition than ever was planned.

Architect Ctrl G
Project team Catalina Patiño, Viviana Peña, Eliana Beltran
Architect Plan B Arquitectos
Project team Federico Mesa
Collaborators Luisa Amaya, Juan Pablo Giraldo, Carolina Vélez, Clara Restrepo, Juliana Montoya, Diana Rodríguez, Felipe Vanegas, Jorge Gómez, Juan José Ochoa
Photographs Sergio Gomez

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