A Tokyo music school, a university in Budapest, a pair of tree-covered towers in Milan and a rural school in Brazil have all been shortlisted for one of architecture's most prestigious awards, it was announced today.
The four buildings will compete for the RIBA International Prize, a biennial award recognizing the best architecture from around the world.
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When the prize's longlist of 62 similarly distinguished buildings was announced last December, the president of the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA), Ben Derbyshire, said that the selection demonstrated "the meaningful impact and transformative quality that well-designed buildings can have on communities wherever they are in the world."
This certainly applies to all four finalists. But it is perhaps best illustrated by Brazil's Children Village. Serving as a boarding school in Formoso do Araguaia, the building has put the remote Brazilian state of Tocantins firmly on the map of contemporary world architecture.
A school like no other
Tocantins, constituted in 1989, is not noted for its architecture. Yes, there are a few characterful colonial settlements, like Natividade, dating back to the 1730s, when gold prospectors made their way here with wagon loads of miners, missionaries and slaves.
But, for the most part, this tropical landscape, bounded by far horizons, remains the stuff of cattle ranching, grain production and the kind of small towns that look as if their single-story buildings have been ordered from budget DIY catalogues.
The Tocantins landscape, however, when not flat, red and almost Martian at times, is punctuated with great rivers, lakes, waterfalls, canyons, beaches and a wealth of flora and fauna. Slowly, adventurous tourists, mostly Brazilians, have been heading this way.
So, too, have members of the RIBA International Prize's jury, which is chaired by New York architect Elizabeth Diller, of Diller Scofidio + Renfro.
What they will have found is a school built of prefabricated, glue-laminated eucalyptus timber and local mud bricks, sheltered beneath spacious white metallic roofs that fend off tropical sun and rain. Clusters of small, well-crafted dormitories, each with its own sanitation, are set between courtyards, study spaces and play areas.
The result is a special building -- more a small town under capacious roofs -- that is at once rural, festive, generous and modern. The architects behind the project are Gustavo Utrabo and Pedro Duschenes, co-founders of Aleph Zero, in collaboration with the designer and Brazilian television host Marcelo Rosenbaum.
The judges have their work cut out, though. Their shortlist is indeed short, but the other three building projects on it are -- if very different from Children Village -- equally special.
On a formerly industrial fringe of Milan, Boeri Studio, led by the Milanese architect Stefano Boeri, has created a pair of remarkable high-rise apartment blocks named, for obvious reasons, Il Bosco Verticale (The Vertical Forest). From the steel reinforced balconies of the 110-meter and 76-meter-tall towers (361 and 249 feet respectively), an abundance of trees, shrubs and flowering plants grow from planters lined with waterproof membranes and polypropylene grids that keep roots in order (and damp at bay).
The many hundreds of trees chosen by Boeri, including holm oak, maple, beech, cherry and Persian ironwood, grow from different sides of the towers according to how they behave in sunlight or shade. The architect believes that, together, trees and foliage will reduce the need for air-conditioning within the apartments considerably, while encouraging an influx of birds and friendly insects.
Most importantly, his Vertical Forest brings nature to the city, while high-rise living reduces the need for the city to sprawl. It is to the credit of the developers, COIMA and Hines, that such an innovative project has been realized. Since the completion of the Milan towers, Boeri had begun work on a taller tower in Lausanne, Switzerland, that is planted with cedars, as well as the new Liuzhou Forest City in China.
Elsewhere on the shortlist is the Central European University, a bastion of liberalism sponsored by the Hungarian-American business magnate, author and philanthropist, George Soros. Devoted to the concept of an "Open Society," the institution yet be forced out of its home. Viktor Orbán's right-wing Hungarian government is very much opposed to Soros' thinking.
Even so, the embattled university, with 1,450 students drawn from 117 countries and teaching staff from 40 countries, has invested in an inspiring and highly crafted architectural project designed by the Dublin architecture firm O'Donnell + Tuomey. Here, new and old buildings are stitched seamlessly together through an atrium, across newly roofed over courtyards and up -- behind a fine limestone facade that fronts teaching and conference rooms, an auditorium and refined library -- to a roof garden with views across to the Danube. Working with local firm M-Teampannon, Sheila O'Donnell and John Tuomey have created a subtle, open-minded architectural adventure for post-graduate students of social sciences, humanities, law and public policy.
Completing the shortlist is Toho Gakuen School of Music in Chofu, Tokyo. The structure is something else again, a three-story concrete box divided into a wealth of rooms and spaces for budding musicians. The subtlety of its plan is something that the building explains slowly, yet surely, to users and visitors alike. Here is a world, part underground although naturally lit wherever possible, in which students -- who have played a key role in the design -- practice and perform in glass-fronted rooms of varying scales through which they can enjoy eye contact and visual communication with one another.
Architects from Nikken Sekkei, a 2,400-person-strong Tokyo practice founded in 1900, felt that too many music schools were prison-like rather than liberating. Here, in a modern building that is at once both formal and informal, a group of highly experienced Japanese architects have helped to frame, liberate and transform the training of young musicians.
The winner of the prize will be announced in November.