In a country renowned for its concrete masters, Rosenbaum and Aleph Zero contribute two large timber dormitories to a boarding school in remote ‘deep Brazil’
To talk about ‘deep Brazil’ is to evoke the mystery and the oppositions between the city and countryside. Contemporary Brazil could be portrayed by the fast-paced world city of São Paulo. Or Rio de Janeiro, a wonder between the mountain and the sea; or Brasília, a landmark of modern town planning – both of the last two listed as World Heritage Sites by UNESCO.
Deep Brazil defines a vast rural territory, almost invisible to mainstream media and unknown to city dwellers, but lauded by economists for being one of the world’s agricultural powers. Araguaia Park Indigenous Land sits in the heart of deep Brazil in the municipal territory of , a town of 20,000 inhabitants. If you want to visit the municipality, it will take some three to five hours’ drive from the airport of Palmas, the capital of the state of Tocantins. It is hard to get to, but a recently completed building has propelled this corner of deep Brazil onto the pages and websites of architectural magazines.
‘The pavilion roofs are a figurative interpretation of groves, off spring of modern Brazilian architecture’s climate concerns, inspired by popular culture’
Away from the town centre and invisible from the roadside, the Moradia dos Estudantes could be perceived as a conspicuous city building in the middle of open landscape. But it is not urban. It consists of two twin dormitory buildings within the Fazenda Canuanã, a rural educational complex in Formoso do Araguaia. Opened in 1973 as a nontraditional rural school, Fazenda Canuanã focused on the Central-West regional reality – at the boundary of the Amazon rainforest in the north of the country – offering basic vocational and technical training. It is supported by the Bradesco Foundation, part of a large banking company with HQ in São Paulo, centred on education and social development.
The school occupies a big property in which chicken, pig and sheep farming, cow milking and slaughter, and seedling nursery coexist with classrooms, computer, art and dancing rooms, library, museum, hairdressing and sewing, playroom, club, restaurant, health centre and dentist, sports courts, swimming pool and accommodation for students and all those who run the farm. As a rural enclave, it looks like an ordinary farm with its outbuildings scattered on the cerrado’s endless horizons. However, Canuanã is in an unstable backcountry where land conflicts and disputes between farmers, squatters, indigenous people and ranchers are common.
Aleph zero and rosenbaum site plan
The original school buildings are arranged along streets and passageways as in a t ical rural village of the region. With this in mind, the architects generated a masterplan for the physical reorganisation of the school complex. Built in 2016-17 and opened in 2018, the new lodgings – one for boys and one for girls – replaced dormitories dispersed over the farm in unremarkable buildings with large bedrooms for multiple occupancy. The design of the new units was born of an intense collaboration with the community directed by Marcelo Rosenbaum, a designer from São Paulo invited by Bradesco Foundation to apply his approach – known as A Gente Transforma (We People Transform) – with architects Aleph Zero. For a couple of days, the designer and the architects engaged with the students in workshops to rethink their living spaces, routines and imagination: ‘We encourage children to think about the representation of the place where they live, so that the space occupies the role of home, not just school’, says Rosenbaum.
Students aged 7-18 years old were selected from families in remote corners of the region, targeting children facing di culties that can lead to further social exclusion, low levels of education and underemployment. The pavilions for students were not conceived only as bedrooms. With a ceiling height of about 9m, another layer of living space was created above the room blocks. This open upper floor works as a study, TV room, games room, exercise space, and generous terrace.
Each pavilion is covered by a 160x65m overhanging roof forming a virtual penetrable prism in the landscape. It is light like a kite ready to soar, blown by the winds that soften the heat of the tropics, but still attached to the ground by delicate pillars, reminiscent of a ballet dancer’s en pointe. Roofs are important in an area where scorching sun and torrential rains are typical, and naturally the best shelter on fiery days is under the canopy of the trees. The pavilion roofs are a figurative interpretation of groves, offspring of modern Brazilian architecture’s climate concern, inspired by popular culture. Volumes, surfaces, textures, lattices, porosities, transparencies, greenery, timber, bricks, shadows and free-moving students are visually unified under these structures, a blurring of inside and out which underpins aesthetic decisions, urban imageries and environmental concern.
Aleph zero and rosenbaum section and floo plan
Neither concrete nor steel, this airy architecture comes from the bold determination of Aleph Zero to design structures of nearly 25,000m2 in glued laminated timber (glulam) and locally made mud bricks. While the latter exploit local characteristics, industrialised timber was employed due to the limitations of local building systems in the face of the scale of the enterprise. ‘The decision to use glulam eucalyptus wood in the structural elements came from the versatile and sustainable characteristics of prefabricated elements, in response to the need to accelerate construction and minimise hassle in the school’s operation’, explained the architects. The framework of the twin units was machined in the state of São Paulo, about 1,400km from the construction site, the dimensions of the elements were determined by transport requirements.
The partnership with engineer Hélio Olga was fundamental to the project. Olga became enraptured by timber structures early in his career, working with José Zanine Caldas, a pioneering master in wood architecture. From certified Amazonian wood logs, he moved into a system building procedure, with managed eucalyptus reforestation. In his small but efficient workshop, he is key to the uses of timber in contemporary Brazilian architecture. Wooden structures emerged in Brazilian architecture in the work of architects such as Lúcio Costa, Oswaldo Bratke, Sergio Bernardes, José Zanine Caldas and Severiano Porto in the 1940s to ’60s, utilising the Brazilian forest reserves and the potential for reforestation. In partnership with Marcos Acayaba, Olga reinvigorated the language of timber architecture in the ’90s. With the introduction of engineered wood technologies in Brazil, new perspectives are on the way. The Moradia dos Estudantes is the first successful large-scale example, and the largest ensemble by Olga to date. It can also be viewed as a descendant of the experimental approach of João Filgueiras Lima – Lelé – whose brilliant hospitals, prefabricated in Salvador, were dispatched across the country, becoming a significant addition to recent Brazilian architecture.
‘Shadows and free-moving students are visually unified under pavilion roofs — blurring of inside and out which underpins aesthetic decisions and environmental concern’
The meeting of glulam timber and raw brick masonry is the symbiosis of the ancestral and the new, of prefabrication and in situ construction. Inspired by vernacular practice, the inertia of the bedrooms’ adobe walls both holds heat and keeps interiors cool, while the playful pattern of perforations created by the bricklaying is reminiscent of constructions in the region.
The pavilions are equivalent to nearly two ordinary urban blocks in the core of Canuanã. This microcosm of the city does not belong to the local context. It is not part of fanciful children’s minds from all corners of the region, but the school principals are very satisfied, and so are the students – some of whom had participated in Rosenbaum’s immersive community collaboration.
As a boarding school, students see their family at most once a month. For many, home is far away. The long stay of children and adolescents in the institution, exposed to the intense and compulsory collective life, modifies their sociability, their original ways of life, establishing new bonds, new personal and emotional relationships. This discipline experienced in childhood and youth will predominate in the personal, social and professional trajectory of each student in their future lives. Contemporary boarding schools acquire new meanings in the context of deep Brazil.
There’s an effort to overlap rural and urban cultures in the new comingled landscape of Fazenda Canuanã. This is a place where information technology could be merged with farming and harvesting. The twin pavilions could be an allegory for dissipating the archaic backyard of the rural world into a more progressive front yard: a contemporary farmland. Boarding schools are places to battle against local, social and family particularities, ties and confines, but also to promote the fight against inequalities, in search of social justice, to unfold the horizons of rural children. Moradia dos Estudantes has given rise to an unexpected optimism in the new modernity of deep Brazil.
Aleph Zero: Gustavo Utrabo and Petro Duschenes
Rosenbaum: Marcelo Rosenbaum and Adriana Benguela
This piece is featured in the AR October issue on Brazil – click here to purchase your copy today