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RIBA International Prize: Rural Brazilian school wins prize for world's best building

November 21,2018 05:10

What and where is the world's best new building? Today, the judges of the 2018 RIBA International Prize have announced that it's a pair of school boarding houses (named "Children Village") set in a remote rural location on the fringes of enormous rice ...


Written by Jonathan Glancey, CNN
Jonathan Glancey, our special correspondent for the RIBA International Prize, is a journalist, author and broadcaster. He has been Architecture and Design critic of the UK's Guardian and the Independent. He began his career with the Architectural Review. He is a member of the Committee of International Architectural Critics. The opinions in this article belong to the author.
What and where is the world's best new building? Today, the judges of the 2018 RIBA International Prize have announced that it's a pair of school boarding houses (named "Children Village") set in a remote rural location on the fringes of enormous rice fields in Brazil's tropical Tocantins province some 370 miles north east of Brasília and 930 miles from the sea.

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So that's two buildings? Technically speaking, yes, although these timber structures are mirror images of one another, so a prize given to one is an award made to both.
"The best new building in the world," said Elizabeth Diller of the US practice Diller Scofidio + Renfro and chair of the 2018 RIBA International Prize jury, "needs to wake us out of our everyday stupor to something challenging that teaches us why architecture is still relevant."

"Children Village" is the winner of RIBA's International Prize 2018 Credit: Cristobal Palma / Estudio Palma

The spacious and effortlessly gracious new boarding houses of the Canuanã School at Formoso do Araguaia, designed by Rosenbaum + Aleph Zero, exactly meet Diller's criterion. They are both intelligent architecture and a wake-up call.

"Children Village" is the winner of RIBA's International Prize 2018 Credit: Cristobal Palma / Estudio Palma

Eschewing air conditioning and even glazing, they open up to the countryside around them, a land, that aside from cattle ranching and the cultivation of rice, cassava, maize and watermelons, is home to thermal pools, white sand riverine beaches, orchids, blue herons, jaguars, alligators, endangered Amazonian trees, cattle ranching and indigenous Avá-Canoeiros tribes people, who choose to have no contact with what we call civilization.

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The Canuanã School educates children from local towns and settlements, as well as from far-flung ranches and encampments, and so the need for dormitories for up to 540 students. The dormitories are clustered in nine groups of five adobe brick structures in each building, under vast single and gently sloping white metallic roofs -- sloped to deal with the drainage of tropical rain -- supported by slim laminated eucalyptus columns that seem barely to touch the ground.
The dormitories are set around large courtyards planted with local trees and vegetation. Each dormitory is home to just six 13 to 18-year old students, and is kitted out with storage space, lavatories, showers and laundry. Steam evaporates through perforated bricks, while rainwater spilling from the big roof is collected in a pool alive with small local fish in a central courtyard. Storm water is channeled into the nearby Rio Javaés.

"Children Village" is the winner of RIBA's International Prize 2018 Credit: Cristobal Palma / Estudio Palma

Wooden stairs lead up from courtyards and dormitories to play areas, reading and TV rooms sheltered from the elements by ventilated timber screens. There are also spaces to loll in hammocks and upper walkways with views across the school campus, with its established classrooms, refectory and clinic, and out to a boundless horizontal green landscape and as far as any student's keen eye can see.

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Raising the bar of design

What is so special about this pair of buildings book-ending the school campus is that it raises the expectations of students and teachers as surely as it raises the cultural sights of a town and province where few, if any, visitors would ever have come before to look at architecture.
The "Children Village" buildings also belong here in Tocantins as surely and deservedly as jaguars and blue herons. As Gloria Cabral of Paraguay's Gabinete de Arquitectura and one of the five RIBA International Prize jury members put it in an interview, the buildings are "really pertinent, appropriate for this place, for this culture, for this weather, these landscapes and at the same time an example for all the world."

"Children Village" is the winner of RIBA's International Prize 2018 Credit: Cristobal Palma / Estudio Palma

Funded by the Fundação Bradesco, an educational charity and offshoot of Brazil's Bradesco Bank, these new buildings are both rigorous in terms of engineering and planning and thoroughly rational in those of structure and materials and yet they exude an effortless air of delight and even festivity.

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"We tend to think of architecture," said fellow judge, Peter Clegg of Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios (UK), "as being a slightly arrogant discipline, flashy and extravagant. Here is an example of a really beautiful building where everything is well considered, and it's very low cost, very low carbon, very creative and a beautiful set of living spaces for these very lucky children."

"Children Village" is the winner of RIBA's International Prize 2018 Credit: Cristobal Palma / Estudio Palma

The architects, Aleph Zero, are a young Brazilian practice led by Gustavo Utrabo and Pedro Duschenes. They have worked in collaboration, especially on the interiors of the buildings, with Marcelo Rosenbaum, the Brazilian designer and television host. The design of the boarding houses is, in large part, a result of immersive discussions between architects, designer, students and teachers.

South America in the spotlight

In 2016, the inaugural biennial RIBA International Prize was awarded to the UTEC Universidad de Ingenería y Technología in Lima, Peru -- "a modern day Machu Picchu," said the judges -- and it might seem too much of a good thing to witness a South American education project winning the prize a second time around, especially with so many fascinating buildings to choose from around the world.

"Children Village" is the winner of RIBA's International Prize 2018 Credit: Cristobal Palma / Estudio Palma

South America, though, is an ideal crucible for the forging of a new and responsible 21st century architecture. Here is not just a country -- Brazil -- but a continent with relatively limited means but great potential, with populations calling for first class education, healthcare and public services that will allow them to thrive. Imaginative and skilled architects are proving that truly inspirational design using local skills and materials, the sun for power and the wind for ventilation, can not only meet the challenges faced but give rise to a new generation of buildings that are being recognized as among the best in the modern world.
Long before Formoso do Araguaia was properly settled from the late 1940s, Portuguese venturers came this way in search of gold. Now Aleph Zero and Marcelo Rosenbaum -- architects and alchemists -- have forged a new gold in modest timber rather than precious metal. And, which in the lives of so many Tocantins students and their teachers is the more valuable?

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