Published On: November 27, 2018

Brazil Has World’s Best Building

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Children Village, a school complex on the edge of the rainforest in northern Brazil, has won the RIBA International Prize for the world’s best new building.

Children Village provides boarding accommodation for 540 children aged 13 to 18 attending the Canuanã School. Funded by the Bradesco Foundation, Children Village is one of forty schools run by the foundation providing education for children in rural communities across Brazil.

Covering an area of almost 25,000 square meters, Children Village is organized into two identical complexes: one for girls and one for boys. Residences are centered around three large open and well-shaded courtyards at ground level. On the first floor, there are a number of flexible communal spaces, ranging from reading spaces and television rooms to balconies and hammocks.

The institution is a boarding school by necessity: It serves the remote agricultural region around the municipality of Formoso do Araguaia in the state of Tocantins, where pupils travel lengthy journeys by horse along unpaved roads to arrive.

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A forest of eucalyptus columns extends inside the expansive dormitory complex of the Canuanã school as if the nearby woodland has taken over the building. Between the soaring trunks stand clusters of little brick rooms arranged around open courtyards while a wafer-thin metal canopy floats above the whole scene, providing shade in the sweltering heat.

Children Village was designed by two young architects in their early 30s from the firm Aleph Zero, who had built little more than a couple of private houses and a few installations before landing this commission. The architects, Gustavo Utrabo and Petro Duschenes, designed Children Village in collaboration with Marcelo Rosenbaum and Adriana Benguela from the design studio, Rosenbaum. Winning the RIBA International Prize is an unlikely accolade for a remote school in Brazil.

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“We chose the architects precisely because they are not the kind who think they know everything,” says Denise Aguiar, director of the Bradesco Foundation, the charitable arm of the bank. “We didn’t know what we needed, but the designers seemed like they would actually listen to what the students wanted rather than imposing their own ideas.”

The architects began with an intensive 10-day residency on site, where they met with some of the 540 teenagers they would be designing for, developing games and workshops to understand how the students wanted to live together. Central to the architects’ vision for the project was the idea of architecture as a tool for social transformation. They wanted to create an environment that could be a home away from home, where children could develop a strong sense of both individuality and belonging.

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The rural isolation of the school’s location made construction a challenge, too. “We could only transport light materials to the site, so we prefabricated the timber frame elements, but we decided the heavy materials must come from the place itself,” says Gustavo Utrabo, who founded Aleph Zero with his former classmate Pedro Duschenes. Speaking on the phone from their studio in São Paulo, he adds: “The challenge was to convince the students and teachers that the local materials of earth, bricks, and timber could represent progress – that being modern didn’t have to mean glass, steel, and air-conditioning.”

Thankfully, Aleph Zero succeeded. The resulting complex is a model of light-touch environmental design, providing a huge expanse of shade beneath which clusters of small buildings are arranged with perforated, breathable walls, allowing natural cross-ventilation. No air conditioning is needed even in 45-degree heat. The only complaint students have made is actually being cold at night, an issue easily solved with more blankets.

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The tropical climate was one of the major challenges cleverly addressed by the architects. The large canopy roof, the structure of which is made up of cross-laminated timber beams and columns, provides shading. The overhanging canopy design has created an intermediary space, between inside and out, giving the effect of a large veranda overlooking the surrounding landscape.

Replacing dormitories for 40 students, the new design provides rooms for six children in a more intimate environment. As well as private spaces, public spaces were designed to give ample room for pupils to study, play, and relax. Utrabo revisited the project a couple of weeks ago to find the buildings have taken on a life of their own. The girls have started organizing pilates classes, which they never had the space to do before.

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Elizabeth Diller, on behalf of RIBA, said: “Beyond being a standout work of architecture, Children Village embodies the generosity of the Bradesco Foundation’s philanthropic mission to provide much-needed amenities to those who otherwise have limited access to schools. The architect’s inventive rethinking of the region’s traditional techniques and materials succeeds in building community and in proving that space matters in education.”

RIBA President Ben Derbyshire, said: “I am delighted that Aleph Zero and Rosenbaum have been recognized for their impressive work. Aleph Zero are philosophical and thoughtful architects and Rosenbaum is known for their work with local communities.”

 

[This article is based on information from the Boston Real Estate Times and The Guardian. All photos by Leonardo Finotti.]

 

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