A fragile desert ecosystem exists at the base of the Catalina Mountains. This place of ancient saguaro and armed cholla, cacti skeletons and abandoned snake skins, delicate palo verde and silty washes, is the site for the Catalina Foothills School District's fourth elementary school.
The intricate microcosm of the site offers an intriguing metaphor for the conception of an elementary school. The series of trails and markers etched into the land surrender clues about the origin of the site. The project, in the same way, relates a narrative through architecture. Like an ancient ruin, this sunken city does not compete with the landscape; it becomes the landscape. The school is integral with the earth it inhabits.
The District's progressive attitude and varied methodologies used in the instruction of children led to their desire to create an educational setting in which a variety of unassigned areas become laboratories for learning. These areas are determined by the site and relate the learning process to the landscape and awareness of place. The school, designed to accommodate 600 students, creates a community of children whereby each student belongs to this community and resides in a specifically demarcated village.
Approaching the site from the northeast, buses and cars remain above the arroyo which cuts across the site. South of this wash, one enters the realm of children. Here various age groups of elementary students occupy their respective villages, with each village fitted with view apertures located in relation to their age specific body size. The routes to and from the villages are strewn with recognizable markers to guide the children in their journeys.
The second and third graders inhabit the kingdom of astronomy
and space. The terrace above the second/third grade village is bounded
by the solstice wall, which on special solar occurrences marks the event
on the terrace surface. Kindergarten and first graders occupy the
watery realm of the vortex, where a donated mastodon tusk looms over the
courtyard; and the fourth and fifth grade village, like the Acropolis,
occupies high ground of the sloping site to create their own subdivision.
The crossroads of the school (the meeting of ancient axes) is the site of the major public spaces of the school: the library and the multi-purpose room. In the library, one finds a labyrinthine depository of information housed within a masonry shell flooded with north light. Inside the library, the computer lab is the center of a second city, a city of invisible networks which short circuit the physical realm. Community Schools and English As A Second Language (ESL) are located in a subterranean world at the very heart of the school under the desert kaleidoscope, lighting the room from above through a matrix of color and artifact. A formal music court and art studios at the edge of the arroyo posture on opposite ends of the site.
Throughout the children's city, opportunities for outdoor assembly and instruction are provided with each village having its own courtyard that will be tailored by its occupants. In the entry court stepped bleachers rise on the face of the multi-purpose room allowing for school-wide performances. Primary and general playgrounds become natural extensions of landscape and building. The gently sloping southeastern portion of the site gathers the playing fields and courts and is linked to the playgrounds and buildings by landscape extensions.
The fourth elementary school, Ventana Vista, will be an exploration of the desert environment and a journey through a children's city of imagination and memory.
Ventana Vista's unique educational design received an award for design excellence from the Southern Arizona Chapter of the American Institute of Architects.
The District hired the Tucson architectural firm of Burns/Wald-Hopkins, who submitted a proposal based upon collaboration with an internationally noted architect and native of the southwest, Antoine Predock. The Burns/Wald-Hopkins proposal was selected from a group of eleven proposals by a committee that included district administrators, local architects, a contractor, and two Governing Board members.
A Message From the Architect. . . .
When I describe this elementary school I always begin with origins. This school's origins lie in its original planner's innovative approach toward education. When our firm became involved in the design of this landmark school, we wanted the architecture to enhance, complement, and facilitate the curriculum. Spaces and elements throughout the school were designed to create unique learning environments for children.
Educational icons are strategically placed throughout this children's city as landmarks and learning tools, each demarcating a village consisting of two grades. For the kindergarten and first graders there is the mystery light monitor, the second and third grade classrooms are clustered about the solar solstice wall, and the fourth and fifth graders can look into the periscope to see distant mountains.
Throughout the children's city, opportunities for outdoor assembly are provided. Each village has its own court with a seating area for gathering. In the entry court, stepped bleachers rise on the face of the multi-purpose room, allowing for school-wide performances. Primary and general playgrounds are natural extensions of the landscape and building. The gently sloping southeastern portion of the site becomes the site of playing fields and courts.
Ventana Vista will become an exploration of the desert environment and a journey through a children's city of imagination and memory.
Antoine Predock, Architect