Meet: Estúdio Gustavo Utrabo


Having won the RIBA International Prize as part of Aleph Zero, Gustavo Utrabo has now set out by himself, focusing on projects in rural Brazil


Words by Rita Lobo

The two buildings of the Children’s Village (2018), a residential school for over 500 students in the heart of Brazil, loom large in the vast horizon of rural Tocantins, despite their low height.

With no exterior facade, the endless blue sky peeks through the structures, creating the illusion that the Children’s Village is a part of the landscape. The intricate brickwork is made from local materials, and the structural wood is native. It is a project with a sense of place and purpose — its vision and approach to sustainability earned its architect, the São Paulo-based Aleph Zero, unanimous international acclaim. Now, Gustavo Utrabo, one half of Aleph Zero, is striking out on his own as Estúdio Gustavo Utrabo.

The RIBA Award-winning Children’s Village residential school project in rural Brazil. Image Credit: Cristóbal PalmaThe RIBA Award-winning Children’s Village residential school project in rural Brazil. Image Credit: Cristóbal Palma

‘We built a large shade structure,’ says Utrabo, who founded Aleph Zero alongside Pedro Duschenes. ‘We used simple technology. We tried to use local, natural resources with a clear aim at building sustainably, but also in an economical way. The building tries to answer very specific local questions: it’s very hot there, with an intense period of heavy rains, so we created this large cover that provides shade and respite to the children.’

Collaborating with partner Rosenbaum Arquitetura, Aleph Zero used volumes and vacuums organised around a central courtyard and under a vast metal roof to create what is effectively a small city for the children who live and learn at the Canuanã School (its official name). According to Utrabo, the design was entirely a reflection of the children’s needs: shade to offer respite from the scorching sun, low-tech natural ventilation, and plenty of open spaces.

Funded by the Bradesco Foundation, the Children’s Village is both remote and rural, but also a generous and innovative piece of community architecture. The two buildings provide boarding accommodation for 540 senior school children at the Canuanã School.

The RIBA Award-winning Children’s Village residential school project in rural Brazil. Image Credit: Cristóbal PalmaThe RIBA Award-winning Children’s Village residential school project in rural Brazil. Image Credit: Cristóbal Palma

Aleph Zero and Rosenbaum Arquitetura scooped up the 2018 RIBA Award for International Excellence for the project in a challenging and oft-neglected corner of the world, and Aleph Zero also won the 2018 RIBA International Emerging Architect prize.

A slew of other international awards followed the RIBA prizes, but in the wake of all this critical acclaim Aleph Zero has dissolved, with both founders deciding it was time to forge their own paths. ‘This is something we had been talking about for a very long time,’ Utrabo explains. It might seem like an unusual decision to walk away from an established practice months after winning some of the most prestigious international awards, but for Utrabo it was all about intellectual honesty: ‘The decision to split up the practice came out of our mutual respect for each other, each other’s interests and research, and the fact that we want different things as architects.’

Image Credit: Cristóbal PalmaImage Credit: Cristóbal Palma

Utrabo founded Aleph Zero in 2012, straight out of university. It was a vision ‘filled with ingenuity — we believed we could do it’, he says. At the time he was still based in the Brazilian city of Curitiba, though he’s since relocated to São Paulo. Starting Aleph Zero was a way to show the industry that he was different. ‘We weren’t really aligned with what other local practices were doing,’ says Utrabo. ‘We were seeking intellectual independence.’ That is the same force driving his new solo venture: Estúdio Gustavo Utrabo.

Now at 34 — still remarkably young for an architect with such accomplishments — Utrabo sees his work as a means to ‘connect people and imagine the future through sustainable and inclusive approaches’. In particular, he wants to consolidate his interest in projects with a social impact. ‘The issues that move me relate to how architecture acts in contemporary society, both physically and subjectively, in light of political and economic issues,’ he says. The recognition that came with the RIBA prizes has opened the door for this type of work. ‘I can now focus on work that has a positive impact on the population and projects that have a social and humanitarian aspect,’ he adds.

The Xingu Canopies, a multipurpose space for the Xingu Indigenous Park in the Amazon. Image Credit: Pedro KokThe Xingu Canopies, a multipurpose space for the Xingu Indigenous Park in the Amazon. Image Credit: Pedro Kok

Utrabo is currently working on another remote project, this time in the Xingu — one of the densest areas of the Amazon, home to isolated native tribes that live in jungle reservations and one of the few places relatively unscathed by the recent fires thanks to indigenous preservation practices. The Xingu Canopies is a flexible and multipurpose space for the Xingu Indigenous Park, that aims to collaborate with the preservation of Brazilian indigenous culture. Once again Utrabo has designed simple but elegant wooden structures for easy construction, low cost and comfort in mind. ‘The project is a shelter home that again works with local materials to answer specific climatic needs to offer a comfortable space for the community,’ he says.

Utrabo’s career has been unorthodox and ambitious so far, but he has reaped the rewards of his boldness. ‘Each project is a chance to advance your research, to hone your skills,’ he says. ‘I didn’t expect to win the RIBA prize but, in a way, winning gave visibility to my practice but also to a whole new generation of architects, who have different ambitions, want to be a different type of architect, and who understand the profession in a different way.’





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