By Alastair Donald, David Chambers and Kevin Haley

22 March 2013 - 11:19

Sambodromo, Rio de Janeiro, designed by Oscar Niemeyer. Photo (c) aberrant architecture.
Sambodromo, Rio de Janeiro, designed by Oscar Niemeyer. Photo ©

aberrant architecture.

What lessons can the UK learn from a project in Brazil to standardise the architecture of schools for Rio de Janeiro’s quickly expanding education system? Alastair Donald, assistant curator of the Venice Takeaway exhibition currently in London, and David Chambers and Kevin Haley, founding directors of aberrant architecture, debate the question.

‘It’s a brave city that says, “Here is our standard school and we are building it everywhere.”’ Such was the response of Mairi Johnson, deputy design director of the Education Funding Agency, to the compelling story of the CIEPs (Integrated Centres of Public Education), an experimental educational project conceived in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in 1982.

Pioneered by then-Rio State Governor Leonel Brizola along with his deputy, the intellectual Darcy Ribeiro, and designed by Oscar Niemeyer, the world-renowned (and recently deceased) modernist architect, the CIEPs are a testament to ambition and forward thinking.

They show the response of a city freeing itself from dictatorship while confronting the challenges of hyper-inflation, mass urban migration and a previously unimaginable full-time education programme for its citizens.

The history of CIEPs and the lessons they hold for the UK today were the focus for the debate Lessons from Brazil: Is Standardised School Design Compatible with Architecture?, which took place this week at the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) in conjunction with the exhibition Venice Takeaway: Ideas to Change British Architecture, which was commissioned by the British Council for the Venice Architecture Biennale 2012 and is now on show at the RIBA.

The debate responded to the work of aberrant architecture, who travelled to Brazil for Venice Takeaway to investigate the CIEP school building programme, which remains relatively obscure. Aberrant visited a number of schools that form part of the 508-strong network of CIEPs that cover the entire city and state of Rio de Janeiro, which were built in just eight years.

A year on from that research trip, we welcomed to this London event Washington Fajardo, president of the Rio World Heritage Institute — one of numerous interviewees on the research trip. Fajardo, who is now leading a re-assessment of the CIEP programme before new school construction starts in Rio in 2016, joined the debate about CIEPs along with a panel of UK experts and sold-out audience.

Standardisation in the UK: a contentious issue

With an urgent need to tackle a shortage of schools, the UK is gearing up for a new school building programme that embraces standardisation. However, as the debate chair Oliver Wainwright of The Guardian has noted, the very concept of standardisation has become contentious amongst some architects.

Panel member Janie Chesterton, education sector director at Willmott Dixon, may be right that ‘pre-design’ is a more useful term for efficient school design. Yet it remains inescapable that, in the UK, ‘standardised’ buildings connote cheap, poor quality, unambitious and uninspiring constructions, often derogatorily referred to as ‘Flat-Pack Schools’, ‘McSchools’ or worse.

Beauty, speed and low cost

Yet while standardisation may seem anti-design or even anti-architect, aberrant architecture believe that, properly developed, with the involvement of architects, system building could be a solution to school building that combines scale and quality — as Fajardo’s discussion of Rio’s experience suggested.

In a talk illustrated by Niemeyer’s beautiful annotated sketches, Fajardo made it clear that a confident architect faces no contradiction between standardisation and ambitious architecture.

Niemeyer clearly revelled in an architectural programme that reconciled beauty, speed of execution and low cost. Bold in appearance, unashamedly modernist in form, constructed at volume using company factories capable of mass-producing 60 schools at a time, no wonder the CIEPs appear an extremely brave approach to today’s risk-averse public commissioning and procurement.

As Sunand Prasad of Penoyre & Prasad noted during the debate, today the CIEPs are emotionally affecting, a product of an emerging democracy in which the state clearly believed in itself and took responsibility for its public duty.

Customise and multiply

This outlook led to a school building programme that pushed the boundaries in every sense. According to Fajardo, confidence in the design and the overall project was the driver for ambitious plans to customise and multiply.

Customisations ensure that the seven standard prefabricated system components could be fitted to different sites and cater to different school sizes. For example, smaller accessory buildings were added to each school site in order to support the main school block.

Plans to multiply the programme across the state of Rio formed (and reinforced) a public infrastructural network in which quality was consistent, whether in the wealthy south, the poorer western suburbs, the downtown, the favelas or the more distant beach resorts. The school standard -– in Niemeyer’s hands at least -– brought design flair to an architectural identity that everyone throughout Rio recognised as a high-quality school.

As Fajardo outlined, not all aspects of the CIEPs programme worked, but these past design problems are informing the design of classrooms in the new Brazilian programme. It seems clear now –- as it was to Niemeyer -– that a modular system can readily accommodate well-designed interiors and exteriors with a strong design character that engages with the context.

It is not ‘standardisation’ that is the problem, but rather the fact that it is being used to deliver a programme of schools that is ultimately modest, risk-averse and unambitious.

Where to next for the UK?

In that sense, the question we were left with at the end of the discussion was whether current plans for the UK employ too much standardisation… or, perhaps, not enough? Certainly, for Prasad the chance to design 508 schools would be a delicious challenge, and Willmott Dixon anticipated that working on 60 schools would open up possibilities for efficient procurement.

Can architects now be confident that modular building at scale is compatible with architecture? On this, the final word goes to Sunand Prasad, who homed in on the loss of the architect as builder and with this, the loss of technical knowledge to understand how complex building programmes can be distilled into a small number of standardised components.

Architecture, he argued, has retreated, ceding the ground of technique, logistics and engineering to others. At a time when architecture is often reduced to box-ticking –- not least within recent school building programmes –- re-covering that lost ground could mark a useful way forward.

Find out more about Rio’s schools at the Venice Takeaway exhibition at the RIBA, London until 27 April 2013.

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