Crafted for care: A centre for the treatment of disabled children in Paraguay uses reclaimed materials in an absorbing narrative of physical and social rejuvenation
Independence day celebrations were cut short in Paraguay when, in 1814, philosophy- professor-cum-supreme-leader José Gaspar Rodríguez de Francia sought to strong-arm the new state into a utopian society based on Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Social Contract. Introducing strict reproductive laws and a brutal secret police, he created an enduring tradition of autocratic rule that would last almost continuously until 1987. A string of dictatorial leaders, most deposed by violence, shut the country off from the rest of the world for the best part of two centuries, leaving a legacy of corruption and deprivation. Only in recent years has a new Paraguay begun to emerge, with a democratically elected leadership, the strengthening of civil liberties and one of the fastest growing South American economies.
‘The act of building is metaphorically charged and can be understood as analogous to building a better society’
The Teletón association is a Paraguayan charity working predominantly with spinally injured children and disabled young people. Like many of the country’s institutions, it was plagued by wider national troubles
and for years was blighted by corruption. The fundraising strategy − an annual televised appeal − was hijacked by embezzlement and Teletón fell into decline. However, in 2008, after a fundamental restructuring, the charity started to rejuvenate its battered reputation. And, as part of these efforts, it commissioned this new rehabilitation centre by local architects Gabinete de Arquitectura.
The rehabilitation centre provides a base for physiotherapy courses and a programme of educational projects aimed at improving public understanding of disability. On the border between the capital Asunción and the overlapping city Lambaré, the complex is organised as a cluster of masonry buildings set within a lush garden. Visitors turn off from a busy road into the centre’s grounds along gently sloping ramps. An ascending pathway is shaded by a pair of vaulted, reclaimed brick canopies (with concealed steel skeletons), which form a perforated screen between the street and garden. The main building is arranged as two wings, separated by courtyards, containing consultation rooms, play spaces and physiotherapy facilities.
From the main building’s south-east corner a path leads to a hydrotherapy pool housed in a dramatic masonry enclosure. A triple-height reclaimed brick wall hangs in the air above a storey-high ribbon of glazing. Inside, three vast inverted brick pyramids rise from freestanding columns concealing emergency water tanks (Paraguay is prone to droughts). Sitting upon an exposed concrete frame the stereotomic walls zigzag along the facade creating a triangulated texture − one of several recurring themes which tie the scheme together visually. Throughout the site, the architecture’s hard edges are softened with playful child-friendly flourishes.
Elsewhere, a pre-existing roof structure has been reworked to contain offices and exercise equipment. The steel carapace recalls the geometry of the brick canopies, sailing over the main space to lean against a vertical masonry wall. The offices are housed in a row of units poking out beneath the wall and accessed via a parabolic arched corridor, designed to allow construction with a thin layer of reclaimed irregular bricks.
The use of brick in structurally elaborate systems became a symbolic challenge for the architects. Trade in the 16th and 17th centuries flowed across the Atlantic to Europe, taking more resources than it brought. Ships that left Paraguay’s ports laden with cotton, tobacco and tannin, would arrive backpractically empty. Heavy English bricks were used as ballast for the westward voyage which would be left behind and used to build walls. These bricks were fired to British standards, able to take 700 newtons persquare metre of compressive force which became the benchmark for Paraguay’s building regulations. Over time, to cut costs, those regulations were revised to 70 newtons per square metre but, as architect Solano Benitez explains, because regulations are poorly enforced, today a typical Paraguayan brick can take just seven newtons per square metre − meaning that even building high straight walls is an impossibility.
The strategy of deploying reclaimed materials in innovative structures is overtly articulated throughout the scheme. Bricks, tiles, tempered glass, wooden door frames and metallic roofs have all been salvaged and re-purposed from the dilapidated facilities that previously stood on the site. The vaulted garden shaders are constructed from triangles of reclaimed brick joined together with an elastic cement; where bricks were broken they were used to build non-structural walls and paving. Reclaimed tiles are used to decorate partitions and ceilings while movable platforms on casters hold second-hand plastic chairs, their legs chopped in half and reattached so as to lower the seat into a reclining position.
Such a comprehensive use of reclaimed materials might be interpreted as simply a robust ecological approach, but here it can be read as an architectural manifesto celebrating the reformation of Teletón and the wider political sphere of Paraguay. For Benitez, a narrative of rejuvenation runs through the scheme. He argues that the act of building is metaphorically charged and can be understood as analogous to building a better society. Consciously avoiding vernacular references Gabinete de Arquitectura has introduced new forms, legibly constructed from old materials. They are telling a story, literally taking apart an old structure piece by piece and putting it back together in a new, more humane configuration − an apt metaphor to describe their ambitions for Paraguay’s ongoing social development.