The new María Montessori School resides in Mazatlán, a city sited on the Pacific coast of Mexico, with a humid climate and high temperatures throughout the year. The architects of EPArquitectos and Estudio Macías Peredo were faced initially with four clear determinates to drive the project. Firstly, an architectural solution that considers the exacting climate and the high degree of salinity surrounding the site had to be sought. The secondary objective was to imbibe the culture and model of a Montessori education (that is far from conventional) and align an architectural solution to it. Thirdly, in the absence of an adjacent urban fabric, the building must form its own field and fabric so as to not deliver a building that sits placeless and alone. The final challenge was that of delivery; a consuming challenge for the architects to design, plan and construct the first phase of this project within six months.
The group of architects of 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 in turn, form the field for the school, 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 and 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. An unconventional model of building could foster this spirit. The client desired a unique building that could facilitate the delivery of the Montessori method that is not linear (from teacher to child) but concentric (from the child themselves).
With the initial idea of the cell – the catalyst of the design for the school – the essence of the classroom favored the dynamic of the educational model. Where the Montessori dynamic doggedly rejects the linear teaching model of teacher to student, the architecture in turn realizes a centrifugal space in the form of the hexagonal room. The hexagon, also being one of the preferred geometric forms of biological assemblies, establishes an order of growth that facilitated the phases of construction for the interior spaces and courtyards, as well as to link the walkways. By the inherent spatiality of the hexagonal classroom, it stimulates dialogue between adults and children, where neither of the two dominates the other.
These 19 hexagonal modules on the site hold the majority 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, providing diffuse natural light to the room and freeing an important visual connection to the outside pathways, courtyards and classrooms, as well as creating a perceived internal openness.
This soft internal module is protected by the construction of a ‘double body’, a response to a principal determinate of the project – the climate of the city of Mazatlán. The ‘double body’ is an additive concrete structure, which is separated yet surround the cells. The concrete is then protected and completed by another layer made from clay – in line with the teachings of Louis Kahn. Creating a secondary skin, it protects the classrooms from the climate of the Pacific coast by surrounding it 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 to not only put in crisis the idea of an opening, but are conformed to the morphology of those who enter, acknowledging the different heights, scales and perceptions of everyone who looks through them. The idea being that both the classroom as a cell and the pilgrimage through the assembly of these cells allow the children to freely build their own order.
Beginning from the idea of the cell and facilitating a didactic method, it has also helped to streamline the construction process through its agile construction method for both the initial phase of the project with its tight deadline and the aggregation of the modules in the subsequent phases. Now, completely built, the construction accommodates three academic levels on the master plan: the Lower and Upper Elementary Program, the Children’s House and the Toddler Community. These ‘neighborhoods’ forming the schools totality, organize 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 unique reoccurring forms and layers, rendering its own urban fabric and community. Beyond this, it exists as a successful series of well-designed spaces fit for its climate and the desired method of learning, which has been built on the basis of a clear and playful ordering of space.