Brilliant Bamboo: How Participatory Design Can Produce Amazing Architecture

The design of El Guadual Children’s Center focused on the pedagogic potential of self-guided exploration.

Paul Keskeys Paul Keskeys

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How do you encourage a sense of collective pride and ownership in architecture for the people that will ultimately inhabit your project? For architects Daniel Feldman and Iván Quiñones — designers of the El Guadual Early Childhood Development 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 project made waves throughout the global design community when it was completed in 2014, and the architects themselves were recognized by Architizer, picking up the coveted Impact Award at the 2016 A+Awards. The firm was picked out not just for their stunning use of vernacular materials and delightful detailing, but also for how the design process itself moved beyond conventional practice to empower the end users like never before.

The programmatic makeup of the Center is no more orthodox 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.

Image via designboom

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.

The primary driving force behind the design was a desire to nurture the children’s growth through self-guided exploration, harnessing their heightened senses with a variety of stimulating spaces. The origins of this technique for aiding learning lie in the “Reggio Emilia Approach,” which states that the physical environment of an educational building is crucial to development during early childhood, often being referred to as a child’s “third teacher.”

Image via Bienales de Arquitectura

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.”

Image via So You Know Better

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.

Image via designboom

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 façades 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.

Image via designboom

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. 30 women from the area were also trained in early youth education, before being certified and hired to become the daily workforce for the Center.

The Center is also benefitting the community beyond its exterior walls, as the architects point out: “El Guadual has generated a notable urban impact, for it offers generous sidewalks and landscape to the public, an open public outdoor movie theater, a semiprivate arts and performing room open to the community at night and weekends and a civic square. The wide array of public amenities has made of El Guadual a new pole of activity within Villa Rica.”

All in all, the project forms an exemplar for participatory design, embracing the idea that good architecture can directly aid the healthy development of children — not to mention injecting a healthy dose of fun into proceedings … Consider us truly bamboo-zled by its success!

Photo courtesy of / Sam Deitch

Daniel Feldman and Iván Quiñones picked up their A+Award trophy at the 2016 red carpet gala in New York City this May. Click here to discover how the A+Awards broke architecture out of the echo chamber.

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