Among the bubbling pot of ideas on display at the Venice Takeaway exhibition currently on show at the RIBA is one idea, that in my eyes is near to boiling over. This is the research project regarding CIEPs in Brazil, brought to the table by Aberrant Architecture.
On the 19th of March a debate was held at the RIBA surrounding these controversial ideas lead by a panel of inspirational speakers including Washington Fajardo (leader of the Rio World Heritage Institute), David Chambers (of Aberrant Architecture), Janie Chesterton (education director at Willmott Dixon), Mairi Johnson (design director at the Education Funding Agency) and Sunand Prasad (Penoyre & Prasad Architects). There was a mummer of excited whispering as my friend and I took our seats and more architects, design students and curious spectators piled in.
The discussion was opened with remarks from David Chambers about the connotations that standardized design can have, emphasizing words such as ‘cheap’, ‘poor architecture’, ‘uninspiring’ and ‘anti-design’. Admittedly I was a little skeptical myself about standardization imaging prison like blocks appearing all over the country with no variety or diversity of design. However I was soon to be proven wrong by the charming and passionate Washington Fajardo who spoke of the history of CIEPs and why a standardized design was used.
In the history of public education in Rio di Janeiro schools were first run by local churches until universities started to appear; coincidentally the University of Coimbra was one of the first to be opened is among the oldest still operating in Europe! In 1983, Fajardo went on to explain, Rio had gained a new democratic spirit and politicians were starting to come back to the country – this is when Oscar Neimeyer decided to put his plan into action which aimed to produce a sequence of high quality, uniform primary schools dubbed CIEPs (integrated centers of public education). These standardized builds were conceived to support and enhance education in Brazil by reducing costs and making schools accessible for all children. Through this experimental school building program there are now 508 CIEPs all over Rio di Janeiro and it is now the biggest system of buildings in Brazil.
Example of a CIEP in Rio di Janeiro.
Contrary to my preconceptions about standardized building the CIEPs offer a design that can be adapted to different sites and locations allowing for an infinite variety of shapes and sizes to fit many situations, which is perfect for the slopes and favelas of Brazil. The CIEPs also provide large open spaces and its playgrounds operate as public squares and communal spaces in areas that were previously lacking these kinds of public places. Fajardo illustrated Neimeyer’s thought process through a series of humble sketches displaying interesting and evolving ideas, going on to explain how standardization is used elsewhere in Brazil. For example in the FED system in Sao Paolo each new school is made through a competition between architects – a clever way to ensure excellent design. Also through CEUs (Continuing Education Units) each school has a different architect guaranteeing an interesting variety of buildings. Hospitals are also built to a standardized design in the SARAH Hospital Network, which is a project designed and implemented by Niemeyer’s protégé João Filgueiras Lima. The buildings are designed with wide verandas on each floor, interior gardens and family spaces. The hospitals even have their own equipment factory manufacturing robotic limbs, communication equipment for nonverbal children amongst other things.
SARAH Hospital Brasilia.
The CIEPs have a strong presence and are easily identified as schools. However can standardized embed great design as standard? Can this be translated into UK architecture? Perhaps this plan was successful in Brazil because Oscar Niemeyer himself had experience of building and was aware of design in architecture. Janie Chesterton argued that in Britain we have a different set of problems to attend to and perhaps this system would not work so well with our limited space and funding options. We are not looking to reinvent the wheel she explained but just to incorporate great design and create spaces that are enjoyable for the children to work in. Sunand Prasad noted that Rio believes in itself and is willing to be a collective whereas here in Britain, we are not.
The CIEPs were of course not without their problems, as Fajardo pointed out there were problems with over heating and bad acoustics as well as issues inside the building affecting quality of education. However there is no such thing as an ideal situation and the CIEPs were the best solution in a terrible economic time.
The discussion was ended by concluding that there is nothing wrong with standardization, as long as it is not dictated and that it is possible to deliver good quality space along with good quality design.