María Montessori School
The María Montessori School is sited in Mazatlán, a city on the Pacific coast of Mexico with a humid climate and high temperatures throughout the year.
Af Elliott Webb
The architects of EPArquitectos and Estudio Macías Peredo were initially faced with four clear determinants to drive the project. Firstly, they sought an architectural solution that considers the exacting climate and the high degree of salinity surrounding the site. The second objective was to align their proposal to the culture and model of a Montessori education, which is far from conventional. Third, in the absence of a surrounding urban fabric, the design had to form its own field and fabric so as to not deliver a building that would sit place-less and alone. The final challenge was that of delivery — to design, plan and construct the first phase of the project within six months.
EPArquitectos and Estudio Macías Peredo initiated the project by resolving the fundamental space of the school: the classroom. Rather than designing the building as a whole, they imagined a cell – the classroom – and established rules for this to form, in turn, the field for the school as a micro-city. Made from an array of small geometric modules with only a single front to the wider city, and in the absence of an adjacent urban fabric, it begins to weave its own plazas, streets, patios, and sanctuaries.
One of the fundamental desires for the project was to support an alternative mode of learning in accordance with the spirit of the Montessori system, which could be fostered by an unconventional model of building. The client desired a unique building that could facilitate the non-linear delivery of the Montessori method: concentric — from the child themselves — rather than the traditional teacher-to-student linearity.
With the initial idea of the cell – the catalyst of the design for the school – the essence of the classroom supported the educational model’s dynamic. Where the Montessori dynamic doggedly rejects the linear teaching model of the teacher to student, the architecture, in turn, realizes a centrifugal space in the form of the hexagonal room. The hexagon, as one of the preferred geometric forms of organic assemblages, established an order of growth that facilitated the phases of construction for the interior spaces and courtyards, as well as linking to the walkways. The inherent spatiality of the hexagonal classroom stimulates dialogue between adults and children, where neither dominates the other.
These 19 hexagonal modules contain most of the educational spaces. Within each module, a soft interior integrates furniture into its low masonry walls, accommodating didactic equipment from the six Montessori learning areas: Science, Sensorial, Language, Mathematics, Culture and Practical Life. Consequently, it creates the hexagonal-shaped rooms, which allow them to be entirely flexible for all classes and occupations. The upper sections of the interior walls are built of glass and wood, diffusing natural light into the room and opening up an important visual connection to the outside pathways, courtyards, and classrooms.
The soft internal module is protected by the construction of a ‘double body’, a response to a principal determinant of the project: the climate of the city of Mazatlán. The ‘double body’ is an additive concrete structure, separate from yet surrounding the cells. The concrete is then protected and completed by another layer made from clay, in line with the teachings of Louis Kahn. As a secondary skin, it protects the classrooms from the climate of the Pacific Coast by surrounding them in shadow and directing the breeze towards the interior. Simultaneously, it facilitates the assembly of the cells by constructing ambulatories that offer multiple and unexpected routes. This defensive body, with its expressive crown-like geometry, does not allow windows as such. Instead, it is punctured by simple triangular openings formed by prefabricated lintels in the concrete, which offer long and filtered visuals. These perforations exist in varying proportions not only to challenge the standardized idea of an opening but also to conform to its users’ morphologies, acknowledging the different heights, scales, and perceptions of everyone who looks through them. The idea is that both the classroom-cell and the pilgrimage through these cells allow the children to build their own order.
The design approach of the cell facilitates a pedagogical method, but it has also helped to streamline construction through its agile modularity in both the initial phase of the project (with its tight deadline) and the aggregation of modules in subsequent phases. Now completely built, the construction accommodates three academic levels in the master plan: the Lower and Upper Elementary Program, the Children’s House and the Toddler Community. These ‘neighborhoods’ form the school’s totality, organizing the program around three polyhedral patios that can always be reached by the continuously interlaced ambulatories formed by the hollow brick modules and their protective double body.
The Maria Montessori School of Mazatlán is a field of uniquely reoccurring forms and layers, creating its own urban fabric and community. Beyond this, it exists as a successful series of well-designed spaces fit for the climate and desired learning method, and built on the basis of a clear yet playful ordering of space.