Local Vernacular

6 December 2018

Last month, the Royal Institute of British Architects named a boarding school complex in northern Brazil the best building in the world.

The previous – and first – winner of the RIBA International Prize in 2016 was also in South America: a university building in Lima by Grafton Architects. The two buildings have a handful of other things in common: both reference local architectural traditions (Grafton studied huacas – sacred clay pyramids found across Peru – when designing their building and RIBA judge Richard Rogers described it as a “modern-day Machu Picchu”, while this year’s winner similarly employs vernacular design elements and local materials); and both used natural cooling techniques, rather than relying on air-conditioning.

But while Grafton’s building is a concrete colossal on the busy cliffside of a capital city, the Children Village in Canuanã – designed by Aleph Zero – is a light criss-cross of wood and brick, sitting in a vast site near the edge of a rainforest. Perhaps the most striking difference is between the practices themselves: when Shelley McNamara and Yvonne Farrell founded Grafton Architects 40 years ago, this year’s winners were not even born.

In fact, before this project, Gustavo Utrabo and Pedro Duschenes of São Paulo-based Aleph Zero had only completed a handful of others – mostly private homes and temporary installations. When I ask Utrabo what impact he thinks the RIBA accolade will have on them, he’s somewhat flustered: “Well, I really don’t know. I hope it influences us in good way. It’s so new for us – we are a young, small practice in Brazil, so we don’t understand it probably.” Do they have plans to grow their current practice of four? “If we have clients, why not?” he laughs.

Inside the boarding school. IMAGE Leonardo Finotti.

When Utrabo and Duschenes started out after finishing their studies in their hometown of Curitiba, however, clients were the one thing they didn’t have. “That's normal right?” Utrabo says. “When you start, you’re so naive – thinking that just because you have a name and a practice, you’ll have commissions.” Instead, they spent their first few years building art installations. “It was incredible, because we didn’t have any function to fulfil, but we needed to have a strong concept – it was good for us to understand what we are interested in.”

In reality, these experiences were formative – having to build structures themselves instilled a certain simplicity and a respect for repetition in their work: A-tra-vés [“As you pass through”, 2012], for example, a 105,00msq piece they created at the Museu Oscar Niemeyer in Curitiba, is in fact a forest of 500 sewer pipes. The roof of a 160-year-old public market in Florianópolis (2016), which won a few awards, was a landmark project for the architects, and allowed them to start exploring their interest in bridging old and new. A lightweight, ribbed retractable membrane is lifted slightly above the historical building on two V-shaped steel supports to allow fresh air to circulate, creating a flexible shelter and enhancing the market’s capacity to host cultural events and act as a democratic meeting space. “We tried to make it a conversation between times and techniques.”

When the practice won the contract in 2015 to build the Children Village, in partnership with designer Marcel Rosenbaum, they spent 10 days speaking to the pupils trying to understand their needs. They concluded that their primary aim had to be creating a sense of belonging – many of the children travel for miles from remote villages to attend the school. “It seemed that they were at school all the time – it didn’t feel like home or a place that they connect to,” notes Utrabo. The structure provides accommodation for 540 children, in units of six people each – rather than large dormitories for up to 40. Another crucial aspect of the design is its use of shade and natural ventilation – through the large, timber canopy that shelters a series of freestanding structures and covered courtyards, the perforated brick and slatted timber screens. “It’s really, really hot there, and without shade kids have to play in the sun.” A lot of the spaces that Aleph Zero have created remain unprogrammed – “Kids know how to play – we don’t have we don't teach them. Here, they have free space they can enjoy.”

A-tra-vés (2012) at the Museu Oscar Niemeyer, Curitiba.

Operating in Brazil, the land of Oscar Niemeyer and Lina Bo Bardi, Utrabo says that the influence of his country’s modernist masters is unavoidable. But Aleph Zero identifies more with the discourse of modernism, rather than the physical manifestations of the the movement. “We are not interested in making a continuous line [from the modernists],” he explains. “If they build with concrete, we don’t need to build in concrete – they already did it.” Instead, these principles manifest themselves in the primacy of technique and efficiency over ornamentation and aesthetics. Because of the distance of this school from major urban centres, for example, a lot of the building was prefabricated and the bricks were made on site using local soil. Unlike a lot of Brazilian contemporary architecture, they used no glass or concrete, but rather employed timber – both because it’s fast and light to build with, and also because wood is so abundant in Brazil. “In the forest, it doesn’t make sense to make a building that’s totally apart from nature.”

In using local materials and incorporating vernacular design elements, the architects are striving to present an alternative vision of the future. “One thing that happens [with the children here] is that the only information they receive about culture is through television, and what they see is not their culture,” Utrabo says. “And they think that the way that they are viewed is connected to the past, not progress and the future. We try to show them that we can use different ways to look to the future and their place in our culture.” But Alpha Kilo’s interest in context, is much like its approach to the Brazilian modernists – it draws on it without becoming entrenched in it, always bringing its own fresh perspective and interpretation to the brief.

The practice is now working on another school for the same client, the Bradesco Foundation. The foundation is the charitable arm of one of Brazil’s biggest banking and financial services group, which has set up 40 free schools in rural communities across the country. This one is in the Pantanal wetlands, so the architects have designed it as a steel structure with elevated walkways to lift it above the water. Another project has also just completed: an indigenous community centre in Xingu, western Brazil, that will help relocate the Kisêdjê tribe from an area where the air has become polluted as a result of nearby soya farming sites. The centre provides space for gathering and socialising, as well as for the community to sell local products, with a flexible system of eight separate pieces that can be adapted, as well as replicated elsewhere, according to need. Neither this architectural solution, nor the studio’s others, overly romanticise the local. “It doesn’t attempt to mimic or replicate the local way of build,” Utrabo explains, “but instead establishes a respectful distance between the traditional and contemporary.”

Central roof of the public market of Florianópolis (2016).