Based in São Paulo’s urban jungle, Gustavo Utrabo questions the role and responsibility of architects when building in Brazil’s threatened hinterlands
Estúdio Gustavo Utrabo were Highly Commended in the AR Emerging Architecture awards 2019. View the shortlist here
In the late 1930s, Brazilian dictator Getúlio Vargas initiated a state-led march into the country’s unmapped hinterland with a view to opening it up to development. At the heart of the Mato Grosso state, the expedition carried out by the three Villas-Bôas brothers unexpectedly culminated, in 1961, in the creation of the Xingu National Park: enamoured with the landscapes and fascinated by the indigenous tribes, they fought for the area’s protection.
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Source: Pedro Kok
Today, the soya-bean farms and cattle ranches that surround and suffocate the reserve have isolated it as a belittled oasis of green that sees its climate degraded and its resources evaporating. The village of Kisêdjê had to relocate closer to the centre of the park due to health issues among its population caused by the use of agrochemicals in plantations on the fringes of the park and the contamination of rivers.
Seeking to protect the social and environmental rights of Brazil’s indigenous peoples, the Instituto Socioambiental commissioned Gustavo Utrabo to design flexible and multi-purpose communal spaces in three of the reserve’s villages, after first meeting the Aleph Zero co-founder when working on the school dormitories in Formoso do Araguaía (AR October 2019).
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Faraway from the concrete jungles of the coast, buildings here are defined by the lightness of their structures and materials. The traditional homes, called ocas, are arrayed around a central open space, their roofs of long and swaying thatch like overgrown fringes on the foreheads of teenagers, with just a neat trim above the doorframe to indicate the entrance. Modern ruins do not exist here, materials just return to nature. And yet Utrabo observes a tension between age-old natural resources and the growing presence of industrial goods on site.
In a territory in constant transformation, indigenous communities are struggling to sustain themselves. ‘How can architecture make itself relevant in a place marked by rural and indigenous memories, techniques, aesthetics and rhythms?’ he asks. Recognising the pre-existence of local knowledge and daily habits, the act of designing and building here is ‘not an attempt to replicate a culture, but to expose it’, he argues. The roof’s oversailing eaves delineate the structure’s perimeter but, within this larger rectangle, there are no definite enclosed spaces. Sliding doors, narrow windows and shifting wall heights suggest multiple uses and configurations. While the closed-off ocas get gradually darker inside, here the playful openings create intermediary spaces and frame relationships with landscape and compound.
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In a country renowned for its masterly concrete architecture, where the overbearing influence of Oscar Niemeyer and Vilanova Artigas still casts its shadow on today’s architectural production, it is encouraging to see younger generations abandoning the canon and moving deeper into the interior to question their role as architects. The words of one of the Villas-Bôas brothers fighting for the protection of the Xingu tribes find a new echo, ‘we are the poison and the antidote’.
This piece is featured in the AR November issue on the Foreign + Emerging Architecture – click here to purchase your copy today