As It Happens

Why a boarding school in rural Brazil has been dubbed the 'world's best new building'

Pedro Duschenes, half of the architectural duo behind the project, says his firm felt it was important to incorporate the students' local traditions and technical know-how into the building's winning design.

Architect Pedro Duschenes incorporated the students' local traditions and technical know-how

Children Village, a boarding school located nearly 600 kilometres northeast of Brasilia, Brazil, has been named 'World's Best Building' by the Royal Institute of British Architects. (Leonardo Finotti)


Its name translates to "Children Village" — and it has been crowned the "world's best new building" by the Royal Institute of British Architects.

Two young architects are behind the innovative design of the boarding school in remote rural Brazil. Pedro Duschenes and Gustavo Utrabo, co-founders of the firm Aleph Zero, teamed up with Marcelo Rosenbaum — a Brazilian designer and TV host, to develop the project.

Pedro Duschenes spoke to As It Happens guest host Peter Armstrong from Sao Paulo, Brazil. Here's some of their conversation.

How does it feel to hold this title, to be one of the architects behind the best [new] building in the world?

It's an amazing feeling. It's such a ... prestigious award. And also because it's such a surprise — we did not expect to receive the prize. There were so many great buildings and huge architecture firms, and we are sort of far away from that reality.

Students hang out in the inner court yard of the school. (Leonardo Finotti)

Part of what makes it great is that it's so unique. Can you describe the school? What does it look like?

The first part that's very unique is that it's a boarding school. And it's very far away from the city. The kids that go there come from low-income families. There are about 700 students, and also lots of teachers and people that work there. So it's more than just a building — it's a whole complex that was existing there. 

Gustavo Utrabo, left, and Pedro Duschenes of the Brazilian architectural firm Aleph Zero. (Vinicius Postiglione)

There's also lots of important things we had to deal with to make the kids feel at home, like they belong to this place — because they come from such different and difficult backgrounds. And there was also the problem of distance. Just travelling [there] is hard and when you have to deliver something there, it's a challenge. So every decision had to take that in account.

The thing you see at first is this huge roof, this very light roof that creates a big shadow. So the first thing that comes to mind is this free space that protects from the sun. And from that, all the other parts of the building start to relate to this shadow, to this intermediate space between the outside and inside.

The people in charge of the school wanted to pick you and your partner as the architects because you were young, and they thought you'd listen to the students. So what did the students tell you?

The children — it was a very rich experience to talk to them, because they come from families that have lived there in this place for a long time. And somehow, they began to lose this relationship to the land, to their own history.

This is the dining room at the Children Village boarding school. (Leonardo Finotti)

So when we first got there, we went to visit their grandparents' house to see what it was like. They were smaller houses, with mud walls, and also a big veranda. A big shadow that would protect this inner space. To our surprise, the inside was really comfortable temperature-wise. Even though we had 40 C outside, the inside of the house was very inviting.

And we knew there was some very important knowledge there. Somehow the students had already to begun to look at the houses of their grandparents as something backwards. And a big challenge was to listen to their stories and then make them realize how important, and beautiful, and useful were these traditions they already had in place.

So as much as we learned, we also tried to make them part of the environment and design of the building.

The bedrooms contain bunk beds. (Leonardo Finotti)

What effect do you think this can have on the quality of life for these students?

We have really high hopes that the space makes it a better space to live — that the children have more calm, more room for themselves, and that they start to reflect upon their own individuality.

We're seeing really good results right away from the point of view of them being happy and studying more, and having more time for themselves.

Written by Kevin Ball. Interview produced by Imogen Birchard. Q&A has been dited for length and clarity.