Brazil's Aleph Zero broke onto the international scene by winning the RIBA International Prize in November for their sensitive school project, Children Village. Matthew Barker talks to co-founder Gustavo Ultrabo
Gustavo Ultrabo founded São Paulo-based practice Aleph Zero with Pedro Duschenes in 2012. Last month the duo won the RIBA International Prize for Children Village, which provides accommodation for 540 children attending the Canuanã School in Tocantins, central Brazil. We spoke to him about the project, his unusual influences, and how Brazil's recently elected far-right government is impacting daily life.
Icon: Do you have any overriding philosophy as an architectural practice?
Gustavo Ultrabo: One thing that we think is really important is this notion of the specific, how you can deal with the specificity of a place, of a city, but at the same time how we can make a global discourse. What you do in one place can resonate somewhere else, in another country. Everything is connected and, more than that, everything is connected with nature. Here in São Paulo, they would always put up buildings that had no understanding of nature. And I think it’s really important that architecture should understand nature, connect with it. We are not separate from nature. We as humans have always thought that we are, but we’re not. In Brazil, where the natural environment is all around us, we need to take these things into account. And it’s the same in other places around the world too.
Icon: Should architecture be treated with the same faith as science when it comes to tackling social and environmental issues?
GU: Architecture is a specific kind of knowledge, it’s much more philosophical than science. It’s a different way of seeing the world. I think that’s a really interesting position because we can combine these two areas, use both scientific and social knowledge. But we try to push science, too. We try to provoke it.
Icon: Where do you draw your main influences from?
GU: We take a lot of influence from contemporary art, for sure. Artists that make you think, like [Rio-based conceptual artist and sculptor] Cildo Meireles, and also some photographers too. When you take a photo, you’re making a critical vision of the moment. And we think our practice is deeply connected with this construction; that architecture comes from a critical point, so anything that’s about taking a critical view of the moment we are deeply interested in. Philosophers are an influence, people like [French anthropologist and sociologist] Bruno Latour and [American speculative realist] Graham Harman.
Icon: These are interesting times in Brazil, with the election of far-right president Jair Bolsonaro in October. Can you feel the effects of the new political climate?
GU: “[laughs] Well, you call it ‘interesting’… you’re being too polite! You can already see the results of what’s happening. We are in a really conservative moment here; we have people saying that global warming doesn’t actually exist, we have freedoms that are being repressed, creative people are feeling very disconnected. And it makes me sad, because it’s not that long ago that we came out of a dictatorship, when a lot of people died. We are such a multicultural country, with so many different ways of living, of being, and we need to embrace that diversity because it’s part of what we are.
Icon: How enjoyable was the Children Village project to work on?
GU: It was amazing. The Village was created in a really poor area. It’s quite far from where a lot of the kids live, so it was impossible for them to go to the school and then go home, they needed to sleep there. Some dormitories were already there, but it’s so incredibly hot, 40 degrees, and you’ve got all these children sleeping together. [laughs] And you can probably imagine how messy it was… So, we went there a couple of times, played some games with the kids to understand better what they wanted, how we could make them more comfortable, make it feel a bit like home. To help do that, we tried to make a more contemporary version of what was already there. So, we made bricks using the soil, we used the same wood structure and style of construction that they have locally.
We decided that the most important, the most generous, thing that we could do was to create these huge shades. Not in terms of verandas and so on, but just to make a free space, which the kids could occupy and play in, do what they want. I went back there a couple of months ago and all the kids were under the canopy doing a Pilates class. They’d never heard of Pilates before, but they wanted to do some sort of exercises in this space that they now had, so they looked up on the internet, found this thing called Pilates and asked their teacher to learn how to do it and then teach them. [laughs] Amazing…