Architecture and Design

The ‘humble hero’ architects who built better education into a school design

  • Boarding school accommodation for poor children in rural Brazil won a top architecture award
  • Royal Institute of British Architects prize also celebrated designs from Sri Lanka to Japan to China that address global challenges
PUBLISHED : Thursday, 20 December, 2018, 1:01am
UPDATED : Thursday, 20 December, 2018, 7:04pm

Architects will go to extreme lengths to design a building that can truly be called iconic and to cement their name in the architectural hall of fame.

Yet the building that was recently awarded one of the profession’s most coveted trophies, the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) International Prize, is no twisted tower or glitzy skyscraper. It is a boarding school accommodation for financially disadvantaged rural children in Brazil.

Brazilian architects Gustavo Utrabo and Pedro Duschenes scooped up the 2018 top prize for their meaningful “Children Village”. The RIBA International Prize, awarded every two years, identifies buildings that exemplify design excellence and architectural ambition.

Among others recognised were projects that while diverse in nature and location, address global challenges, including a sustainable home in Colombo, Sri Lanka, a tiny tower in Tokyo, and a “green” university in Shenzhen, China .  

The Children Village in Formoso do Araguaia, Brazil, is designed by Utrabo and Duschenes’ studio, Aleph Zero, in collaboration with the designer Marcelo Rosenbaum. The 30-something co-founders started their own firm just out of college because they couldn’t find a company that felt connected with their ideas.

“Children Village provides an exceptional environment designed to improve the lives and well-being of the school’s children, and illustrates the immeasurable value of good educational design,” says Ben Derbyshire, RIBA’s president.

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The village, built using local materials and traditional craftsmanship, provides accommodation for 540 students at the Canuana School. It is one of 40 schools run by the philanthropic Bradesco Foundation providing education for disadvantaged local children, and the first of them to use design to improve the quality of education.

There was a boarding house at the school, but it was old and hot, with 40 kids per dormitory, explains Utrabo. Even so, attracting students to attend school was never an issue.

“These kids have nothing,” he says. “The only hope for children to have a different future from their parents is to study in school.”

Covering an area of almost 25,000 square metres, Children Village is organised into two identical complexes: one each for girls and boys. Residences are centred on three open, well-shaded courtyards at ground level, with flexible communal spaces on the first floor.

These kids have nothing. The only hope for children to have a different future from their parents is to study in school
Gustavo Utrabo

With summertime temperatures reaching the mid-40s degrees Celsius, designing a comfortable environment without need for air conditioning was one of the major challenges. While this was achieved in part from the design of the large canopy roof, a key factor was the use of mud bricks that were handmade on site from the excavated soil and cement.

The thicker the bricks, Utrabo says, the better their insulating properties – in this case, the bricks are 16cm deep. The result? “After the kids moved in, the first thing they asked the director for was blankets,” he says.

Locally sourced sustainable eucalyptus wood was the other main material used in the construction.

On behalf of the grand jury, Elizabeth Diller believes that Aleph Zero and Rosenbaum achieved “a humble heroism” with this project. “The architects’ inventive rethinking of the region’s traditional techniques and materials succeeds in building community and in proving that space matters in education,” she says.

Studio Dwelling at Rajagiriya, Sri Lanka, by Palinda Kannangara Architects won the RIBA Award for International Excellence. The judges said it is an “ingeniously composed” building made from a “commendably simple palette of materials”. Each of the four floors has a distinctly different character. The property was built beside a marsh in Colombo as the architect’s own home and office.

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The use of rough board marked concrete is an unusual choice in tropical weather, as the material retains heat. The solution was to add a perforated brick outer layer, with an air gap in between.

Together with shading, courtyards and landscape strategies, the microclimate is cool enough so that air conditioning is almost completely avoided. Offcuts from a carpentry workshop, and reclaimed stonemasonry from old colonial buildings, further the building’s environmental credentials, while adding character and reducing costs.

Pavilions and terraces enhance the liveability in a challenging climate, opening up views to the marshes and gardens.

At a total build cost of just over £118,000 (US$149,000), this project shows it is possible to design an architectural masterpiece on a relatively small budget.

“We built it over two years, with no deadline,” Kannangara says of the building, completed in 2015. Reusing materials, and leaving surfaces bare of paint or plaster (which also cuts future maintenance costs) contributed to the savings, he adds.

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The architect also loves its weathered appearance, so that the three-year-old building nestling harmoniously in the natural environment looks like it’s been there for 30 years.

“If one is willing to accept the intrinsic characteristics of materials including their imperfections, it brings to life a building which reflects the occupants’ personality,” he says.

Another award for excellence winner, Tatsumi Apartment House by Hiroyuki Ito Architects in Tokyo, is lauded for its ingenious and highly efficient use of a tiny site.

The 10-storey tower contains two commercial floors, six studio flats and a top-floor duplex on a 7.5 metre by 5 metre plot. Catering to young urbanites in flats of around 34 square metres, the house is, in the judges’ view, “an exemplar of micro living where architecture, engineering and furniture design combine”.

Architect Ito believes such a design could be a solution for other dense cities, such as Hong Kong.

The concrete structure reduces noise and vibration from the street, while also enabling a stepped section arrangement where niches are formed between the thick columns and beams, creating places for cooking, eating, sitting and sleeping. Dividing the small floor plates in this way ensures the most efficient use of space, and also makes every flat unique.

Among the technical issues was meeting regulations in relation to earthquakes. The twofold solution involved using tensioned cables to “anchor” the building to the earth, and to reduce the building load, especially on the upper floors.

“The section of the columns on the top floor is almost one-third of that on ground floor,” Ito says. “We accepted and tried to make the most of all the conditions and requirements from the structural engineer as well as from the surroundings. The only thing we didn’t accept was the proposal to reduce the number of the floors, which we had promised to our client.”

Being open-minded to the conditions presented “led us to the thorough optimisation of every part of the building” through variety in dimensions of the structure, Ito says.


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In Shenzhen, China, local site conditions also informed the design of Xiao Jing Wan University, by Foster + Partners.

Commissioned by a state-owned enterprise, China Resources Group, the university provides management training for the company’s 450,000 employees, including residential facilities for up to 300 students plus staff. In awarding this project for excellence, the judges called it “inspiring and dignified”.

Completed in September 2016, the campus sits on a landscaped site with the two main materials used – fair-faced concrete and purpose-made bricks – reflecting the red earth on the surrounding hills. Natural daylight filters throughout.

The project “makes its own context”, the judges found, noting that the “unstuffy, un-institutional” collegiate feel of the low-rise campus stands in contrast with the high-rise, densely packed blocks familiar in China.

Chris Bubb, senior partner at Foster + Partners, says the vision was to create an architectural ensemble of buildings that respond to both the physical and historical context.

“This area of Shenzhen has a history of brick masonry buildings, which had been lost over the last four decades,” Bubb says. “[Our] design renews this lost tradition with a contemporary interpretation of the conventional building block.”

More than half a metre long, the specially designed bricks were made from local earth and manufactured in a neighbouring factory. The bricks were baked at varying temperatures to obtain slight variations in colour shades, matching the different tones of earth found in the surrounding area. They were then overlaid with a layer of mortar selected to complement the colour of the fair-faced concrete structure.

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“The result is a precise, well-engineered complex of buildings that derive their character from the basic building block – the brick – simultaneously reflecting the area’s vernacular heritage and the contemporary nature of the university buildings,” Bubb says.

It’s also sustainable. The use of local clay for the bricks minimised energy consumption and carbon emissions; the green roofs have maximised planted area; and the association with nature inherent in the design will increase well-being among the students. The buildings are naturally ventilated to reduce the cooling and energy consumption, and renewable energy is used for common areas such as the pool and the gym.

“The whole campus is designed as a car-free environment with motor vehicles to be parked in the basement and bicycles and electric vehicles used for local transportation,” Bubb adds.