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San Lucas School by Francisco Izquierdo and Maria Jose Varas, Santiago, Chile

A new primary school provides civic and social focus for an emerging Santiago neighbourhood. Photography by Cristobal Palma

San Lucas School is a new primary school located near the intersection of two urban highways in the Lo Espejo district of Santiago, south-west of the city centre. Operated by Fundación El Camino, a private charitable foundation that aims to give children from poorer backgrounds a decent education, San Lucas sits outside the state system but is funded by a mix of government subsidies and private donations. Designed by Francisco Izquierdo and Maria Jose Varas, it forms a new civic and social focus for a still emerging neighbourhood.

The school’s site lies within a larger urban design initiative by the Elemental research group. Headed by Alejandro Aravena and based at Santiago’s Pontificia Universidad Católica, Elemental specialises in designing and implementing social housing and urban renewal projects on the margins (AR July 2009). When this project is complete it will transform 50,000m² of wasteland into a habitable new city quarter. It also aims to become a development exemplar for other neighbourhoods, showing how to remodel derelict parts of the city through the collaboration of private institutions, local communities and government.

In terms of programme and site, this tough little urban school is quite different from Izquierdo’s Ventolera winery (AR November 2009). There, on a remote rural site, the assemblage of carefully engineered structures had a conscious sculptural and topographic quality.

Here, in the backstreets of Lo Espejo, the grungy and still unresolved surroundings call for a simpler and more direct architectural language of concrete-framed pavilions interspersed with courtyards.

Yet despite the brusqueness of form and materials, this is an intensely sociable building. Most of the classrooms, workshops and labs are deck access, so alleviating the banality of corridors, encouraging contact with the outside and creating spaces for informal interaction. Ramps and stairs thread through structure and children swarm with abandon, so the school resembles a giant, inhabited jungle gym.

Lying on a former reservoir, the site was originally covered with landfill and sediment. In clearing the site for this building, much of it was excavated and the resulting spoil reused to sculpt the surrounding terrain, forming a protective berm around the school’s sports field and creating a new landscape of changing levels. The building sits cradled in the excavated space, one storey down from street level, so its urban impact is tempered. This ‘ground’ level contains a series of planted courtyards that provide respite from the hard playgrounds and also soften the modular geometry of the architecture.

The building is organised logically and legibly. A three-storey spine, conceived as a convivial street, anchors a quartet of two-storey wings that dock at various angles along its east side. These subsidiary volumes define the courtyards and act as bridges. The lowest level contains classrooms, offices and the school chapel, with workshops, laboratories and dining room above. When the school decides to expand, the structure can be easily extended.

With glazed classroom walls and open access decks, the building’s permeability cultivates a sense of animation, making pupils and staff feel part of a perpetually lively school community.

This permeability is also an important aspect of environmental control, with narrow plans and openable windows encouraging natural ventilation in the hot, dry climate. The overhanging concrete structure provides additional shade. Showing what can be achieved on an unpromising site and modest budget, the school catalyses and uplifts the neighbourhood in its ongoing mission of renewal.

Architect Francisco Izquierdo, Maria Jose Varas
Project team Francisco Izquierdo, Maria Jose Varas, Francisca Lorenzini, Claudio Tapia, Andrés Alvear
Structural engineer Ingevsa, Eduardo Valenzuela

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