Nia School in Mexico City has been designed by architects Sulkin Askenazi to encourage creative movement
Nia school is not your average primary school. Based in Bosques de las Lomas, on the hills of Mexico City, the school is run along Montessori principles where children are encouraged to explore the world around them and direct their own learning.
For Gabriel Askenazi, partner and architect at Mexico City-based practice Sulkin Askenazi, it was their very first educational project, so when Nia School’s founder and executive director, Jaquelin Kalach, commissioned the firm to design her brand new venture, he didn’t have to start by unlearning what a school ‘ought’ to look like.
‘We’ve designed houses, offices, venues and restaurants, but we’ve never created schools before. It was an amazing experience,’ says Askenazi. ‘We wanted to design a school that would help kids develop their skills through interactive learning. Kids learn in various ways and we wanted to support their growth by creating spaces that allow them to exercise their minds and bodies.’
To a teacher used to the average risk-averse primary school design, the idea of children climbing, swinging, crawling and jumping their way through the school day might seem a little alarming. But at Nia School the request was for a physical environment that would encourage free movement and exploration, and Sulkin Askenazi has certainly delivered on the brief. The 600 sq m learning area allows the children to move freely between a series of flexible spaces, developing their physical and mental skills and, it seems, having a vast amount of fun along the way.
Image Credit: Aldo C Gracia
The most visually striking feature is the surprisingly challenging play equipment that springs organically from walls, ceiling and floor. ‘We believe that it is imperative that children from a young age are in continuous movement and in contact with physical activities that demand a high level of skill,’ Kalach tells parents – part of the Montessori philosophy that learning physical skills such as climbing, balancing and jumping helps kick-start the child’s capacity for problem-solving.
The second surprise is the colour palette: not a cartoon character, funky pattern or primary colour in sight, as Sulkin Askenazi doesn’t believe in infantilising its end users. ‘We designed the school really believing that kids are more sophisticated than they seem and that they don’t need a rainbow-coloured school in order for it to be appealing for them,’ says Askenazi. Instead, the carefully selected colours are those of earth and rocks, sea and sky.
In fact, nature is as ongoing theme throughout the design. ‘Both the client, and we as architects, believe in using materials that are soft, tactile and natural, such as cork, oak, leather, soft fabrics and rugs,’ says Askenazi. Natural wood predominates, from the slices of oak that provide hand-holds for children climbing the suspended stairs, to the natural pegs holding musical instruments on the wall and the oak cladding that turns the reading area into a quiet cocoon.
The child-sized furniture, all designed by Sulkin Askenazi specifically for the project, is also made in natural, hard-wearing wood, with pleasingly organic, curved silhouettes. Elsewhere, the inspiration comes from rocks and stones – hexagonal rugs in different shades are grouped together in the music area like slabs of geometric basalt, while a comfortable bean bag sofa in the reading area resembles a cairn made from pebbles. There is also a spacious outdoor area, full of trees and plants, with natural wooden play equipment. Even the lighting has a natural feel to it, with a mixture of small recessed spotlights and larger, circular downlights that illuminate thoroughly but not harshly.
The Montessori philosophy believes that children will learn when they want to learn – so part of the ethos of the design was for it to present learning opportunities to the children, who are aged from two to eight years old, in an appealing way – so everywhere you look there are books at the right eye-height for every child, and puzzles awaiting attention on open shelves. ‘The kids loved the design; it makes sense for them,’ says Askenazi. ‘It makes them happy and the design will help them develop different kind of skills.’ The client is also delighted with the finished results. ‘We are removing the obstacles that make education tedious, boring and in many cases useless,’ says Kalach. Instead, she maintains, Nia School is ‘educating towards happiness every step of the way’.
Architect Sulkin Askenazi sulkinaskenazi.com
Design team Jack Sulkin, Gabriel Askenazi, Fernanda Barrera, Ramón Aguilar, Aidee Lorenzo Client Jaquelin Kalach Landscaping Fernanda D’Acosta, Apolinar Flores
Furniture and interior design Sulkin Askenazi
Lighting GTEC Iluminación
Flooring Interceramic, Maderas Finas Studio, Urban Deco