How do you encourage a sense of collective pride and ownership in architecture for the people that will ultimately inhabit your project? For Daniel Feldman and Ivan Quiñones – designers of El Guadual Children’s Center in Villa Rica, Colombia – the answer was clear.
Exercises in participatory design over three years got the whole community involved in the creative process, and resulted in a complex of buildings that everyone feels truly belongs to them.
The programmatic make-up of the Center is no more conventional than the design process that was utilized to construct it. The collection of buildings – more accurately labeled an "Early Youth Development Center" – provides education, recreation and catering services to 300 children between the ages of 0 and 5, as well as 100 pregnant mothers and 200 newborns, as part of the national integral early youth attention strategy “de Cero a Siempre”.
That caters to a lot of people with a wide array of differing needs; hence, consultation with end users from an early stage was more crucial than for almost any other project.
Design charrettes with local residents – particularly children from the nearby schools, youth workers, and community leaders – allowed everyone to express their ideas, establishing priorities pertaining to the use of space, materials, and the connection of the complex to the surrounding city.
Funding for the Center was also an exercise in collaboration – a combination of private donations, fundraising, and government contributions enabled the project to start on site in 2013, with construction cost ultimately totaling $1.6 million.
How do these pedagogic philosophies translate into architectural design? In El Guadual, parts of the complex read like a contemporary adventure play park, with a variety of transitions between classrooms customized to appeal to the children’s natural love of play.
As the architects themselves state: “The 10 classrooms offer open spaces, obstacles, and multiple variables to navigate the center, making the process of discovering the center itself both a challenge and a game, making education a recreational experience. Numerous entrances and exits connecting paired up classrooms through mountains, bridges, stairs, and slides foster an environment of decision making and individual development through architecture.”
Their description, while playful, implies that the Center could be visually chaotic and convoluted in its layout. However, one look at these photographs and any concerns are quickly nullified: these classrooms are constructed, in the main, from two beautiful materials that give the complex an aesthetic more in keeping with a contemporary gallery than a children’s center.
Locally sourced bamboo is utilized for its inherent structural qualities in the columns lining the walkways, while its warm tone and permeability is harnessed for many of the Center’s facades and window shades. These natural elements are wonderfully complemented with the use of rough-cast concrete, using local techniques of split bamboo formwork to provide textured walls that are punctuated with circular peepholes and tunnels for children to traverse through.
All this is the fine work of 60 locally sourced tradesmen, employed and trained specifically for the build, together with numerous community contributors who volunteered to help with finishing touches – such as the colorful bottle-topped boundary fences seen here. Thirty women from the area were also trained in early youth education, before being certified and hired to become the daily workforce for the Center.