A large planar piece of lightweight metal is lifted up from the earth, providing merciful shade in the sweltering heat of Northern Brazil; a forest of thin eucalyptus columns extends out to prop up this expansive dormitory complex.
Af Elliott Webb
Inversing a vista of the nearby woodlands, it feels as though the forest has been dragged to the clearing and framed three-dimensionally. A step closer, we see that a field-like organization of small mud-brick rooms are scattered between the trunks, surrounded by open courtyards and activated platform spaces that airily wander above the ground plane, individuating themselves from the perimeter. This is the Children Village, designed by young architects Aleph Zero in collaboration with architecture and design firm Rosenbaum. It hosts the dormitory complex for the Canuanã school in Northern Brazil; one of many schools funded by the Bradesco Foundation, the charitable arm of one of Brazil’s largest banks, which originally built the school in the 1970s and operates a mere 40 such schools across the country.
Winner of the 2018 RIBA International Prize for the best building in the world, this remote Canuanã school housing 540 children in a diffuse part of Northern Brazil is an unusual recipient of this award. The commission was a challenging one, both because of the location and the potential role of the architecture to yield a new home and learning environment for students, farmers, and teachers in a vast rural zone. Brazil’s infrastructural and architectural culture has shown itself to blindly modernize its surroundings, so this particular boarding complex — which provides housing and an educational environment to the children of far-flung communities — revealed a question of how architecture could become relevant to a location marked by rural and indigenous memories, techniques and rhythms. Children Village by Aleph Zero and Rosenbaum responds to such inquiries with a project that shows transformation and modernity through its rigorous design and its all-inclusive investigative methodology: a progressive cultural intervention, an encouragement of vernacular construction, native knowledge and beauty and a desire to deliver an environment of affirmation: of self, place and belonging, all necessary for the development of a child.
Aleph Zero was selected because of a desire to avoid imposing a ‘placeless’ architecture on the site and its users. The firm, which had only built a selection of private houses and designed a few installations before landing this commission, showed humility and a desire to pay attention to the children’s needs, the place, and the culture. Denise Aguiar, director of the Bradesco Foundation stated, “We chose the architects precisely because they are not the kind who think they know everything. 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 project began with an intensive ten-day on-site residency, where the group of architects met with some of the 540 teenagers destined to reside at the school — as well as the teachers, local community and administration — in an intense and open collaboration. Through the architects’ “Gente Transforma” methodology and dialogue-based approach, the resulting conclusions were that the vernacular knowledge and beauty of local construction techniques were to become the project’s constructive and aesthetic north. Despite the success of this endeavor, the architects were faced with the challenge of convincing students and staff that the local materials of earth, bricks and timber could also represent progress – that “being modern” didn’t have to mean glass, steel, and air-conditioning.
The institution is a boarding school, a central educational node for the remote agricultural region around the municipality of Formoso do Araguaia, where the students often travel lengthy journeys by horse on unpaved roads to get there. This isolation made the construction a challenge too. The majority of the lightweight materials and timber frame elements were prefabricated and transported to the site, while the heavy materials (earth and stone) were found in situ. The overall gestural result is a model of light-touch environmental design; it achieves huge expanses of desired shade through a thin, white metallic roof propped up by eucalyptus wood columns and structural elements. Underneath, a field-like arrangement of clustered small mud-brick rooms with breathable walls allows for cross-ventilation through the timber-column grid.
The whole complex can be read as two distinct villages, defined by a requirement to separate genders. These are the two identical structures set on either side of the school campus. The spaces are not gathered on a central axis, but rather supported by the perimeter. The edge thus organizes the territory, allowing educational spaces to remain central and at the heart of the complex, in turn allowing for better spatial and functional reading of the school as a whole. The techniques of using local soil in the form of adobe brick walls in both solid and perforated mediums became the highest-performing element of the project. Performing climatically, all spaces within the complex require no air-conditioning, even in 45°C heat. Simultaneously, it represents the connection between the people and place: a reclaimed modernity that doesn’t abandon its roots.
The residents of Children Village used to sleep in overcrowded barracks of up to 40 students to a room, are now gathered in smaller clusters of five rooms, housing just six per room. Each of these clusters is surrounded by beautifully landscaped courtyards that help temper the air humidity, and allow for a variety of vistas for and uses by the students. These are then connected by an upper level of wooden walkways, studies, hammocks, patios, living rooms and play areas. These are defined by slatted timber screens while all the colonnaded walkways orient views diagonally into the planted courtyards and out to the landscape beyond, effortlessly uniting the building with its expansive rural location. Both macro and micro arrangements of building elements draw relationships from the veranda; the children’s work, play and rest are interconnected through a simplistic structure and material set to give one the feel of wandering around an open tree fort.
This remarkable project by Aleph Zero and architecture and design studio Rosenbaum revives and celebrates a dialogue between vernacular techniques and a positive model for sustainable housing. It demystifies the status of the school as a unique place for learning and transforms the whole complex and surroundings into a territory with both a feeling of home and potentials for educational moments. The studio’s vision of architecture as a tool for social transformation, supported by their collaboration with students, staff, and locals, has delivered an architecture that adds significant value to the existing complex while reinforcing the students’ feeling of belonging to Canuanã. It is an unmitigated success and a worthy recipient of the 2018 RIBA International Prize for Best New Building.