The northern state of Tocantins is one of Brazil’s most overlooked. Completely landlocked, it is one of the least densely populated states of the country and is best known for the Jalapão state park, the gorgeous, isolated micro-region of sand dunes, plateaus and tropical savannah. What it’s not traditionally known for, however, is its architecture.
Brazilians would be shocked to know that the current winner of the prestigious Royal Institutes of British Architects (RIBA) Prize is, in fact, located in Tocantins. The Children Village, a boarding school close to the Ilha do Bananal river island, was bestowed with the biennial award for “exemplifying design excellence and architectural ambition” as well as creating a meaningful social impact.
The building itself is a large boarding school providing education for 840 disadvantaged local children and lodging for 540. Administered by the Bradesco Foundation, it is part of a network of similar schools around the country.
Designed by Gustavo Utrabo and Pedro Duschenes, from architecture firm Aleph Zero, as well as São Paulo designer Marcos Rosenbaum, the project was conceived after long discussions with the school’s students themselves, with a view to creating something that properly fit their needs.
One of the building’s greatest achievements is that it is able to remain cool, even in the extreme heat of Tocantins, where temperatures can often exceed 40 degrees Celsius. The secret to this ventilation is the expansive, thin roof, providing excellent shade, and the complex’s breathable walls. Air conditioning is never needed, vastly reducing its electricity costs.
The structure is reminiscent of traditional indigenous villages, propped up by large, beautifully finished eucalyptus trunks. The different parts of the complex are connected by large courtyards which are designed with plenty of space for activities and relaxation, as well as colorful and attractive vegetation.
One of the other pillars of the construction process was the focus on using local techniques and materials. This was partly an ideological choice, but also a question of necessity. As the school is in such an isolated region, it would have been impossible to bring large, heavy materials.
“The challenge was to convince the students and teachers that the local materials of earth, bricks, and timber could represent progress,” Gustavo Utrabo told The Guardian newspaper. “We had to show them that being modern didn’t have to mean glass, steel, and air-conditioning.”
Another of the designers’ primary concerns in constructing the Children Village was environmental sustainability. According to new figures from the government, deforestation in Brazil’s northern region has hit its highest level in a decade, with around 8,000 square kilometers of forest cut down over the last year, an area the size of Puerto Rico.
The state of Tocantins has been one of the few to decrease deforestation, and all the wood used in the Children Village is from reforested trees. Furthermore, all of the bricks were made on site.
The part of the school which attracted the most plaudits from the RIBA judges were the dormitories. Arranged in two separate buildings (one for boys, one for girls), the children sleep six to a room, a far cry from their previous sleeping arrangements, which were in Army-style barracks of up to 40 teenagers to a dorm. Each room has its own bathroom, shower and laundry facilities, and all of the furniture is made on site.
“The main aim of the design was to make a place that feels like a home from home for the kids,” said Utrabo.