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Mixing new technology and old

Children Village in Brazil has been awarded the 2018 RIBA International Prize. We asked its architect Gustavo Utrabo of Aleph Zero about technology, craft and the future

Local sundried bricks and CNC cut timber were used on the Children’s Village by Rosenbaum and Aleph Zero.
Local sundried bricks and CNC cut timber were used on the Children’s Village by Rosenbaum and Aleph Zero. Credit: Leonardo Finotti

Gustavo Utrabo, Aleph Zero
Children Village, Tocantins Region, Brazil, timber canopy oversailing dormitories for rural school pupils

What gave you the chance of making a great building? 

Firstly an amazing client who understood the importance of architects – which is rare in Brazil. Then the problem and extreme conditions of the region which meant we needed different approaches. The fact that it was a social project for kids in this remote region, living away from home, gave us the chance to build a great team, including for example lighting experts who are more used to working on museums. 

What has most changed the way you work in the last decade?

I am 33 so only graduated in 2010! But I see as a small practice that we are trying much freer approaches. We will investigate different things then come together and combine this knowledge. I am interested in where things come from; on this project I explored how to build using natural prefabricated elements (the wooden structure) and a local one (the bricks). And how to meld the building with its surroundings by avoiding doors and playing with the thresholds. My partner, Pedro Duchenes, was concerned with the system of measures, the idea of scale, the pillar and what happens around it. 

How have your processes or buildings changed with digital technologies? How about on this building?
I am interested in them not as a trend but a way to build cheaper and better. On this project we used CNC cutting for the structure. The site is remote – 12 hours and two planes from São Paulo for me and a week by truck for the materials. With CNC everything is accurate. If you can’t guarantee the precision on each element of this big building you can have a huge problem. 

Do you take advantage of other improvements in building or material technology?

We look both forwards and back. For the sundried brick we looked to the past. People stopped using them locally as the dried grass in the mix made it crack over time and bugs got in. Now we can make them with a different mix, more precisely and more quickly. 

Do you still see the importance of the craft, or art, of making? 

The art of making is the face of your culture. In terms of architectural knowledge in Brazil, I think it is important to show how something is built well to show others how to build better – like raising the timber on metal feet, it makes the structure float, it feels like ornament but of course it also stops water rotting the wood. There used to be craftsmen, but no more. We almost need to start again, as with the bricks. 

What can your shortlisted building tell us about the architecture of the future?

There are so many futures – and every site has a specific future. A notion should be developed locally about materiality and content. It makes people happier. 

What is the greatest challenge that architects face? What can individual architects do about it?

Sometimes we are forced to be really specific – say on the thermal insulation properties of glass. But then we can lose the context and the whole. We have to be able to understand specificity and also to zoom out to understand the whole. Zooming in and out is the challenge. 

As individuals we should never forget what we are, we have a specific role in society at different levels. Sometimes there is too much rushing so we just repeat things but we need to listen to the world and act on what we hear. 


The RIBA International Prize is announced on 22 November

Read the thoughts of the other shortlisted practices here: Nikken Sekkei, O'Donnell + Tuomey, Stefano Boeri Architetti

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