São Paulo-Based Aleph Zero Forms A Discourse Between Nature And Architecture

Aleph Zero, Brazil, Sao Paulo, Caiobá
Images Courtesy of Cristobal Palma and Pedro Kok
Children Village designed for children of the Canuanã school in Brazillian rainforest by Aleph Zero
As Brazil’s government threatens the country’s vast and fragile nature reserves, the award-winning São Paulo-based practice Aleph Zero develops an architecture for marginalised rural communities

On the last weekend of April, thousands of indigenous people marched into Brazil’s capital Brasília in protest of the far-right government’s assault on their rights and territories. The newly elected president Jair Bolsonaro has pledged to exploit Brazil’s Amazon rainforest and its sparsely populated indigenous reserves, which constitute 13 per cent of the vast country’s land mass.

For the São Paulo-based architecture practice Aleph Zero, part of the problem lies in the country’s approach to buildings. “Brazil’s natural surroundings are so vibrant, yet we view them as distinct to our urban culture,” says Gustavo Utrabo, who co-founded the practice with Pedro Duschenes, “As a practice, we’re trying to develop an architectural discourse that is more closely connected to nature."


A house in Caiobá, Brazil designed by Aleph Zero

The young practice recently came into the spotlight for their new building, a remote boarding school in the northern tropical state of Tocantins, designed using locally sourced material and vernacular building techniques, in collaboration with Brazilian interior designer Marcello Rosenbaum. The Canuanã School educates 540 children from nearby villages with funding from the Fundaçaõ Bradesco, the philanthropic arm of one of Brazil’s leading financial services companies. Last November, the school was named the world’s best new building by the Royal Institute of British Architect’s biannual International Prize.

I meet Utrabo at a café close to his studio. In the densely populated and sprawling commercial capital of São Paulo, the legacy of architectural modernism feels distinctly at odds with the remote school in Tocantins. Imposing concrete structures by modernists such as Oscar Niemeyer, Vilanova Artigas and Lina Bo Bardi embody the spirit of progress and equality which inspired urban development projects and planned cities of the post-war decades.


The exterior of Casa Plus Casa in Amparo, Brazil designed by Aleph Zero

But the future prosperity that was envisaged at that time lies in stark contrast to the realities that young practices like Aleph Zero are addressing today. In addition to environmental concerns, Brazil’s inequality levels are among the world’s highest and housing shortages have led to swelling informal settlements. “I learn a lot from Brazilian modernism’s discourse, but it’s also time to move on,” he explains. As an influence, he cites the French philosopher Bruno Latour, whose definitions of modernity attempted to bridge the perceived gap between nature and culture.

Such an approach is visible in Aleph Zero’s designs for the Canuanã school where building resources in the sparsely populated region were limited. The adobe perforated brick walls of the dormitories and classrooms draw on local vernacular architecture. A thin metal canopy, held up by eucalyptus timber columns, provides a protective shade from the oppressive heat. “We wanted to build something simple with a precise and strong structural gesture,” explains Utrabo, “this partly echoes Niemeyer’s view that a building’s structure creates the space and atmosphere.” It also allows children to make use of the open air corridors between the dorms and the classrooms. “We gave them more freedom to play,” he says.


A house in Caiobá, Brazil designed by Aleph Zero

By focusing on the local context and materials, the architects hope to contribute to sustainability. In another recent project, Aleph Zero have designed modular bungalows using wood and mud bricks which serve as community centres for an indigenous community in the Xingu region. “The design is so simple that they could easily be reproduced locally,” says Utrabo.

But the solutions are not always so clear-cut. Brazil’s manufacturing and construction industries are largely concentrated in the south of the country, and many regions suffer from a lack of adequate infrastructure. As such, the Canuanã school’s timber frames were prefabricated outside São Paulo. The distance between the school and the city is over 1800km, which is longer than the road from Paris, the French capital, to the Eastern borders of Poland.

To read the full article, pick up the Summer 2019 issue of Harper's Bazaar Interiors 


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Aleph Zero, Brazil, Sao Paulo, Caiobá
Images Courtesy of Cristobal Palma and Pedro Kok
Children Village designed for children of the Canuanã school in Brazillian rainforest by Aleph Zero