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Escuela Rosario Castellanos
Colonia Cuauhtemoc Cardenas, Juitepec, Morelos, Mexico, 2000


Escuela Rosario Castellanos in Colonia Capiri is at the edge of Cuernavaca’s informal settlements on land adjacent to CIVAC, the city’s industrial sector. Like the communities we had worked in earlier, this informal settlement was built purely on unclaimed land at the edge of this industrial sector purely because of local people’s initiative. What is unique about Capiri is that it is both more established and more sparse then adjacent colonias. As opposed to San Lucas, which was an empty field when we arrived, the site of Capiri had been settled for fifteen years. However, it had never achieved full density because of the conflict in nature and ideology between it and the adjacent planned housing community. Capiri was a fragment firmly positioned at the extreme edge of several already tenuous urban settlements.

This project began thanks to a generous donation by Alfred Zuckolov, an optician and inventor from New Hampshire. Through his marriage to a Mexican woman he came to meet the people of Communidad, the Cuernavaca organization assembled by Gabriella after the success of Escuela San Lucas. In one of those encounters he visited the squatter communities where we had been working and met a disabled child who, because of his disabilities, could not attend school. Zuckalov therefore required that the school be wheelchair accessible. In addition he wanted it completed in a nine-week period, making it one of the most ambitious projects we’d undertaken in a single season.


There was a makeshift but well-attended school on the Escuela Castellano site when Design/Build Mexico arrived, built by the community years earlier with extremely limited means. The walls were made of wooden fruit boxes, the slats of which had been taken apart and reassembled to form long narrow schoolroom. The thin wooden slats admitted an incredibly soft but distracting light, and it was a dangerously fragile structure with no windows and patched-in electricity. Throughout the construction of the new school building, classes continued in this space.


That year we had a very unified design process. The students came up with a building type inspired by the second phase of the Escuela San Lucas, using similar extended fins to protect the building from heat gain caused by the western setting sun. The building is positioned along the east-west axis, with a sloping shed roof that creates a low overhang to the south, shielding the classrooms from direct sunlight, and that opens up in the rear of the building to permit northern light. Punched openings in the fins on the south side create the shared commons of a wide corridor that runs along the length of the building. The single shed roof allows for ventilation, capturing dominant winds from the south and pushing hot air out ventilated casement windows at the north. When the winds reverse, the air is cooled by shady gardens at the rear of the building on its way in and let out near the courtyard. The building has worked superbly in terms of passive cooling and lighting.

With this project we began to develop a pattern of creating front and back gardens. Every classroom has a small garden in the back that can be cultivated by the class. Near the public courtyard, a trellis was built on the eaves to be shared by everyone—today it is overgrown by bougainvilleas.


The principal, Irma Mendoza, was a very formal woman who was both supportive of the process and suspicious of what we could do, despite her awareness of our success at San Lucas. As opposed to Natalia Acuna, the maestra from San Lucas who had been raised in the revolutionary rural school tradition and spent a lifetime devoted to community efforts, Irma was woman who believed in the current urban school model of the Ministry of Education. The single shed roof form of the building design, which worked so well environmentally, created a huge conflict with the Ministry of Education. They wanted our students to change the roof to a traditional gable form to look more like the school prototypes the Ministry was promoting all over the country. We made the argument that what might be appropriate for Mexico City was not necessarily appropriate for the hotter weather of Cuernavaca. This didn’t seem to make sense to them; it was more important that the school look like their model school than having it be a good environment for education. Fortunately, the private funding for the project allowed us unusual latitude. That, and pressure at the state level, eventually pushed the project forward.

In the end, this was one of Design/Build Mexico’s finest buildings in terms of the environmental solution and the amount of work we were able to complete in a short time. We had always enjoyed some degree of grass-roots community support in our work and it had always been essential to our success. Although the school’s maestra remained conflicted about the project, we had participation from both the younger teachers and the parents in the community. A local women’s organization and small cultural groups provided our most memorable support, often in the form of homemade meals.

The success of this school was also a testament to the growing support for our work from the municipalities in the area—many offered various forms of assistance at critical points in this project. The ground proved unstable in the early phases of construction so the state and municipal governments offered a large excavator to help finish digging the foundations. It would have been impossible to find stable soil without the equipment, and students began to call 2000 the “Year of the Machine.” Later, however, the mayor sent local tradesmen to help with the finish plaster, bringing the project back to the scale of the skilled laborer. Escuela Rosario Castellano proved to be the turning point at which our work found support from not only the informal sector, but the establishment as well.

Eventually even the Ministry of Education came to accept the school, and with great irony imitated the shed roof form two years later when they built a second building across the courtyard from ours. Unfortunately the Ministry’s architects misunderstood the building’s orientation and its relationship to sun and wind. In an attempt to achieve formal symmetry on the walled site, the new building is a mirror of the old with the shed roof sloping in the opposite direction—to the north this orientation denies the soft northern light and admits the hot southern sun. While the Design/Build Mexico school building is well-lit and cool, the Ministry’s building is glaring and hot. From this one sees that influencing communities through shared work and experience is much easier than influencing governments by architectural example.

The local community continues to maintain and treasure the Design/Build Mexico’s school building. On a recent visit the school’s new principal, Maria de Lourdes Ojeda Gomez, told us that because there is no funding for a janitorial staff or a gardener, parents of students take turns cleaning the building throughout the school year. The principal explained that children treat the school and its ground well because they know that their families are its collective builders and stewards.