Those unmistakable rural schools in Uruguay

In the 1960s, a philanthropist and an engineer set about replacing “school shacks” in the poorest, most remote parts of Uruguay. They went on to build 228.
By Karen A Higgs
Those unmistakable rural schools in Uruguay
Last updated on August 31, 2021

In the 1960s, a philanthropist and an engineer set about replacing “school shacks” in the poorest, most remote parts of Uruguay. They went on to build 228 instantly recognisable schools, most of which still serve their communities admirably today.

In 1961, a philanthropist and an engineer set about replacing “escuelas-rancho”. These were shacks which served as schools in the poorest and most remote rural areas of Uruguay.

It was the bicentenary of José Artigas, the founder of Uruguay, himself an unconventional, progressive military general, and Alberto Gallinal Heber, a wealthy landowner and politician who was well-known for his cutting edge approach to agriculture (indeed his enthusiasm for human progress in general) was tasked with rebuilding rural schools.

He enlisted Eladio Dieste, who was even at that time an engineer and world-famous modernist architect, and together they inspired a movement that between 1961 and 1972 would build 228 schools.

That umistakable design you’ll spot – bricks and wavy roofs

As you drive around the Uruguayan countryside, the schools are instantly recognisable. They are made of brick and have undulating roofs which are self-supporting vaults – both Dieste hallmarks which were picked up in a 1961 Architectural Review article.

Most are still in use today though some have become community centres, perhaps due to declining school populations.

Modern, practical design combined with community collaboration

The Dieste design was deliberately simple so that it could be easily adapted to each locale with just small variations. It included a spacious classroom or two, a bathroom,a school kitchen and teacher’s living quarters. The design was so contemporary, Dieste had built his own family’s residence on the same principles.

The financing model known as the Plan Gallinal was that land was donated by local landowners. Then parents and other community members got together to dig out the foundations and build the schools. The plan included the training of bricklayers, who in turn taught other bricklayers how to carry out the design.

The bricks used were known as ladrillos de campo, “country bricks”. They were often fired right on site in a wood-burning kiln and made of mud and wood shavings.

Eladio Dieste – a national treasure

In 2017, to mark the 100th anniversary of his birth, Dieste’s work was declared part of Uruguay’s national heritage. Dieste championed elegant but low cost architecture. He built grain silos, factory sheds, markets and churches, all in Uruguay. His most famous church—the Cristo Obrero—was declared a UNESCO heritage site in 2021 and is on the outskirts of the beach town, Atlántida.

Things to do

Plan a trip to Florida, one of Uruguay’s provinces where you’ll get to see first hand more Gallinal’s work, including rural schools.

Photo caption: The rural school in Independencia, province of Florida. The little boy is a pupil and the lady is Queenie, one of the local residents responsible for convincing the local landowner to donate the land to the Plan in negotiations that involved a late-night, last-minute signing.

Photo by Guru’Guay

The author has relied on information provided by the Ministry of Education and Culture (MEC) and Proyecto Educativo Dieste in Spanish for this story as well as a visit to Florida, a province with 27 Dieste schools, made possible by the Department of Tourism of Florida and the Florida development agency, ADEF.

[This article was first published on December 21 2016 and last updated at the date above]




4 Responses

  1. Muy lindo reporte sobre el plan bicentenario de Artigas y sobre el Carrillon! Tengo el orgullo de ser nieta de Alberto Gallinal y siempre es muy lindo leer artículos sobre su trabajo

  2. Excelente reporte que nunca realmente supe el motivo de estas escuelas excepto las de Roger Balle ( creo así se escort) yo fui a la 72 de Calera del Rey, pero no al edificio nuevo….ya que se construye un año después k yo había comenzado secundario en Minas y en el 70 me fui al exterior y realmente nunca tuve una historia verdadera sobre las escuelas….. muchas gracias por tan lindo reportaje

    1. Muchas gracias por tomar el tiempo de comentar, Wilson! Aprendi todo sobre estas obras increíbles en una visita de varias dias gracias a la intendencia de Florida. Es un honor documentar historias asi — y en ingles! — Karen

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