Ventana Vista Elementary School
Catalina Foothills School District, Tucson, Arizona


A fragile desert ecosystem exists at the base of the Catalina Mountains. This place of ancient saguaro and 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 surrenders clues about the origins 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, with a single ‘nomadic’ tent/sunshade at its hub.
Through a progressive and varied methodology, the school district wanted 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. Completed in 1995 for 600 pupils, the school creates a community of children: each student belongs to his or her own community and resides in a specifically demarcated village.
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 and their courtyard is organized about a solstice wall. Kindergarten and first graders have spy holes interconnecting their classrooms while occupy the realm of the subterranean turtle with its shell perforated with desert skylight. The fourth and fifth grade village occupies the high ground of the sloping site and has its own graffiti wall.
Throughout this children’s city, opportunities for outdoor assembly and instruction are provided, with each village having its own courtyard that will be personalized by its occupants. In the entry court, stepped bleachers also rise for school-wide performances.
The school encourages exploration of the desert environment and creates a journey through a children’s city of imagination and memory.


In association with Executive Architect
Burns and Wald-Hopkins Architects
















Trinity River