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The rural Brazilian school that enraptured the architecture world

The young architects behind a school in rural Brazil didn't expect international recognition for their work....

Posted: Oct 30, 2018 1:44 PM
Updated: Oct 30, 2018 1:44 PM

The young architects behind a school in rural Brazil didn't expect international recognition for their work. Their goal was simply to serve disadvantaged students in the remote community of Formoso do Araguaia, a municipality around 500 kilometers (311 miles) northwest of the country's capital, Brasilia.

"That's fundamentally what we studied for, you know?" said Gustavo Utrabo, co-founder of the architecture firm Aleph Zero, during a video call from Sao Paolo.

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But the project has, nonetheless, been thrust into the global spotlight. In September, it was named among four finalists for the 2018 Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) International Prize, a biennial award honoring the world's best new buildings.

"Maybe the notion of what's important in a prize is changing," suggested the firm's other co-founder, Pedro Duschenes.

"The questions are changing," Utrabo agreed. "It would be hard to give a major prize to a project that's just trying to be the highest skyscraper and shine brighter than everything else, without thought for energy consumption or local people."

The pair's modesty overlooks the principal reason for their inclusion: the nominated building, known as Children Village, is an astoundingly innovative piece of community architecture.

Providing accommodation to more than 500 senior school students, the two-story structure uses local building materials to offer an organic vision of modernity. In keeping with local architectural traditions, the design is, mostly, free from glass, cement and air conditioning.

'A small city'

Set around three large courtyards, Children Village houses medical facilities, play areas and separate living quarters for boys and girls. ("It's like a small city," Utrabo said.) Its thin metal roof provides shade, protecting students from a savanna climate that is both hot and -- in the summers -- prone to heavy rain.

"They say that they have two different (seasons): summer and hell," Utrabo joked.

Thick walls help keep the rooms naturally cool. But it's the materials that stand out: Each brick is made from local soil, which was mixed with water and a small amount of cement before being compressed and sun-dried on site.

Together with eucalyptus wood (which was used for structural beams, staircases and roof supports), these natural building blocks were chosen to resonate with a local community composed largely of farmers and indigenous Brazilians.

"That's how they used to build," said Duschenes. "The grandparents of the (students) would build with mud bricks and wood. But somehow that got lost, or (came to be seen as something) bad from the past."

Yet, that's not to say that Utrabo and Duschenes -- who co-designed the building with fellow Brazilian firm Rosenbaum -- are overly deferential to vernacular traditions. Their design also nods to contemporary ideas. Children Village may employ ancient materials, but its flat roof and rectilinear frame are steeped in the traditions of architectural modernism.

Given that the nearest major city to the school is Brasilia (the concrete playground of famed modernist Oscar Niemeyer), this aesthetic will be as familiar to locals as the construction materials.

"It's a different kind of modernization," Duschenes said. "So a big part of the process was to show them that (their traditional) way of building could actually be done in a very technological and precise way -- that it's also a possible future.

"It's a dialogue between the times," he added.

An unconventional choice

The building's remote location and unorthodox materials aren't the only things that distinguish it from the usual gamut of international award nominees. For a start, Children Village was largely prefabricated. The region's poor roads and limited construction infrastructure meant that almost everything was built off-site and transported, in pieces, to Formoso do Araguaia to be assembled.

At 31 and 33 respectively, Duschenes and Utrabo are also incredibly young by industry standards. Having already claimed RIBA's International Emerging Architect prize, which is awarded to firms less than 10 years old, the duo has made an early impression on the architecture world, even if Children Village fails to claim the International Prize next month.

In any case, there are, as Utrabo suggests, other ways to judge the design's success.

"The rate of students that pass the exams (to enter) university is now higher than (before) -- so it's working really well," he concluded. "And I think the kids are having a lot of fun."

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