Funded by the Colombian chanteuse’s charity, this school rises above the slum that surrounds it, catalysing social uplift and forming a new anchoring point in a marginalised community
East of Cartagena’s historic centre, at some remove from World Heritage Site tourism and the luxurious hotel towers of Bocagrande and El Laguito, lies the neighbourhood of Lomas del Peyé. Nearly two thirds of its population lives below the poverty line and access to education, health and public services is poor. Streets are mostly unpaved and houses built with a scavenged assortment of materials, while stagnant water filled with rubbish incubates and spreads disease. This is a forgotten place where the community’s essential needs are unmet.
Built on top of a hill, between Cerro de la Popa (Popa’s Hill) and Ciénaga de la Virgen (Virgin’s Marsh), Giancarlo Mazzanti’s new school attempts to address these harsh realities. The steep slopes surrounding Lomas del Peyé and the irregular weft of its streets make it hard to distinguish clear urban relations between the building and its surroundings. The only direct contact between the school and the wider urban structure is the building’s main entrance: a broad ramp and a large plaza for group activities, effectively a place for community gatherings. To connect the school more explicitly with its context, each classroom has a unique view to the city centre, airport, or landscape of hill and marsh. For architect Giancarlo Mazzanti, ‘the building aims to become an open, public terrace with privileged outlooks of the city’.
From a distance, the school appears as a massive object, at odds with the diffuse and heterogeneous composition of informal settlements that cluster around it, like tugs nuzzling an ocean liner. The project’s sponsor is the Pies Descalzos Foundation (literally the Barefoot Foundation), a charity founded in 1997 by Colombian chanteuse Shakira to improve educational outcomes in displaced and vulnerable communities, so the building is intended as a strong urban presence emblematic of uplift and change. Certain elements of the programme, such as the auditorium and the music hall, are contained in extruded concrete boxes that directly confront the landscape. However, the most distinctive element is the polygonal turret enclosing the central patio, its metal structure wrapped in a lightweight timber lattice. The striated shadows of the roof structure temper the heat in sunny days and cast rippling patterns through the space below.
At present the school is detached from the wider urban fabric, but it is the first piece in a jigsaw of an integral urban transformation that, in years to come, will establish an urban park connecting the ecosystems of the hill and marsh. The aim is also to promote a gradual improvement in the area through its inhabitants, with the opening of local stores and restaurants enriching the neighbourhood economy as well as attracting tourists and visitors from other parts of the city.
The new school provides primary level education but another equally important aspect of its remit is to become a focus for the community. In a country where public investment is insufficient to meet basic social needs, the school has ambitions to capitalise, both socially and culturally, on the potential of new infrastructure, so the educational programme is augmented by a series of community spaces. Public areas are strategically organised so as to become autonomous units. Separated out from the main volume of the project, the sports fields connect directly with the neighbourhood, while the library and multi-purpose room have independent entrances to allow for their use outside teaching hours. Materials such as concrete, granite, metalwork and wood-plastic composite strips articulate a clear tectonic language, but they are also durable and demand little maintenance, crucial in public projects that will not receive much subsequent investment.
Classrooms are arranged around three hexagonal patios. This strategy of grouping integrates circulation within the building’s spatial matrix and can be expanded accretionally over time as the school evolves. Ramps and corridors encircling the courtyards are merged with the main spaces and serve as balconies and contact areas during breaks. Shared facilities such as the library, auditorium, computer rooms and administration offices are placed on the second floor. Because of the hot climate, these spaces need to be air conditioned and so are hermetically sealed. Patios planted with different tree species establish a shady microclimate that mitigates the heat and attracts native fauna. Lightweight vertical tiles used for the inner facades enable natural ventilation and engender a sense of openness.
As a social organism, the building is as much a device for nurturing individuals as for academic education. By creating a sense of community and encouraging integration, the school cultivates civic and social relations. The transparency of the architecture enables students from different grades to be in permanent contact, constantly learning from each other. ‘Empty spaces have the same value as the classrooms’, says Mazzanti. ‘These areas of undefined programme are places where relations get built, where kids can make friends and fall in love. The value of architecture does not lie in itself but in the events it can allow and generate.’
Using architecture as a tool for the transformation of marginal areas is a strategy that has already proved successful in other Colombian cities such as Medellín, Bogotá and Santa Marta, where building infrastructure is seen as a crucial step towards the advancement of social equality (AR February 2011). Being able to study in an appropriate setting, a right taken for granted by those not below the poverty line, introduces pupils to another way of perceiving the world. And so Mazzanti’s architecture helps to dignify a group of people previously excluded from the city. The building is a new and civilising environment, and this impacts on the behaviour of its students and the community. Parents coming to pick children up after the school day now make an extra effort to be well turned out, revealing the potential for architecture to create a sense of belonging and trigger wider social change.
Paradoxically, many examples of current Colombian contemporary architecture in marginal areas stand in conscious opposition to their surroundings. Bold forms and massive volumes contrast with the informal, neglected texture of surrounding neighbourhoods. Many are winners of public competitions because of the new kind of urban relations they can establish and the clear image they transmit. Over time this enhances social cohesion, as people previously confined to their houses due to violence, disorder and lack of public spaces mingle and interact.
The choice of the building’s name, Lomas del Peyé, refers directly to its geographical location. By acknowledging the local community, its inhabitants are no longer considered anonymous, but instead given an identity within Cartagena. Responding boldly yet sensitively to its context the ‘School of Shakira’, as it has become known, aims to become the symbol of the city’s educational regeneration. More than 15 schools have already been built to fight poverty through education, but because of its strategic location and role in the wider scheme of urban and social renewal, this particular educational institution has come to embody the aim of overcoming the historical exclusion of Cartagena’s marginalised population.
‘The building is a new and civilising environment, and this impacts on the behaviour of its students and the community. Parents coming to pick children up after the school day now make an extra effort to be well turned out’
As a mere built object architecture cannot eradicate complex and long-established issues of social inequality, but it can help to spark off change. The building acts as a material witness for a deeper transformation: the understanding of the project is directly linked to what it ‘allows and generates’, not only within but also beyond its walls. Pies Descalzos social worker Liliana Nuñez explains the Foundation arrived in the area four years before the school opened, in March 2014. At a time when the project was still an idea, Pies Descalzos worked on community integration and the implementation of programmes such as ‘Productive Backyards’, where families tended their own vegetable patches. ‘While the government provides the terrain, the road network and the sewage system, socio-cultural structures have to be superimposed onto the material investment to change mentalities’, she says.
Because the state cannot ensure decent living conditions, public buildings and urban projects must act as catalysts for opportunities. The sense of renewal and novelty that schools, libraries, and public projects foster in vulnerable sectors of the cities triggers a series of transformations that would otherwise rarely occur.
Reflecting the will to improve quality of life, the very existence of a project is often more powerful than the building itself. Architecture can therefore be seen as an effective tool for the visualisation of political intentions, as well as a condenser, embodying complex processes.
The Lomas del Peyé School is a building that bestows pride and a sense of belonging to a previously deprived and neglected community. Acknowledging its influence as an agent of change and renewal, the students have responded to the project in a highly positive way. And for Cartagena, the building has become a powerful visual talisman for the social programmes that will help to challenge, confront and ultimately dismantle the city’s historic inequalities and injustices.
More Colombian architecture as a tool for social transformation
Report on two cities: Bogotá and Medellín
Biblioteca España, Medellín, by Giancarlo Mazzanti
Antonio Derka School, Medellin, by Obranegra
Aquatic Centre, Medellín, by former Paisajes Emergentes
Sports Hall, Medellin, by Giancarlo Mazzanti and Plan:B
El Porvenir Kindergarten, Bogotá, by Giancarlo Mazzanti
Timayui Kindergarten, Santa Marta, by Giancarlo Mazzanti
Report on Colombia under construction