Setting the Standard: Visiting Architecture Chair Receives Sustainable Design Honor

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By Andrew Wyder

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A rendering of the Collective Harvest project (provided by Gustavo Utrabo)

During an interview with Rowe Family College of Architecture Endowed Chair Dean Reed Kroloff in fall 2021, Gustavo Utrabo was asked to comment on the role of sustainability in architecture. The award-winning Brazilian architect and 2021–22 Victor A. Morgenstern Family Visiting Chair in Architecture at IIT College of Architecture pulled no punches in his response: “We don’t have any other way to go other than to be sustainable. The facts are clear.”

Utrabo—whose plaudits from the global architecture community for sustainability, inclusivity, and adaptability include the 2018 Royal Institute of British Architecture International Prize for the world’s best new building and 2018 Instituto Tomie Ohtake Akzo Nobel Architecture Award for Children Village, a residential school complex on the edge of the northern Brazilian rainforest—has now been further recognized for excellence in sustainable architecture as a winner (Silver level) of the Regional Holcim Awards for Latin America.

Now settled into his fellowship—which includes a full year of teaching in the College of Architecture—Utrabo has unearthed a connection between the work that the Holcim Foundation honored him for and the ethos of IIT Architecture. 

“What makes me super happy—not just about the award—is to see that IIT shares the same interest in this approach to architecture, which is highly technical, embraces diversity and social issues, and expands the architecture field,” Utrabo says. 

Utrabo’s Collective Harvest, a community-engaged nut-processing facility in the São Francisco village adjacent to the Iratapuru River in the Amazon Basin in Brazil, was selected as a winner of the Regional Holcim Awards, an international competition that draws hundreds of entries from around the world. As such, the project was also a finalist for the global Holcim Foundation competition, which showcases the cutting edge of sustainable design, green architecture, and materials innovation. 

Utrabo says that after traveling to the remote outpost in northern Brazil to familiarize himself with the area, he quickly realized the benefits a new facility would have on the local economy; the nut processing requires the community to spend a third of the year collecting nuts in the Amazon Rainforest and then four months producing the oil from them. Deforestation in the Amazon Rainforest reached a 15-year high in December, and understanding that the community relies on the nuts grown in the rainforest for its livelihood, he was deliberate in working with the community to build a facility that both helped them with their jobs while also being careful to not have any additional harmful impacts on the rainforest. 

“It’s a project that takes you out of your comfort zone, because it’s such a different context, so you need to understand the future [needs of the region] and the resources,” Utrabo says. “And you need to be really thoughtful about how you put the pieces together; you have to do it in a really precise, simple way so that the community can [be sufficient]. This is a challenge that I love to have. It’s not so often that we have this type of situation—a project in a community that has social issues that we can help with—and that is totally connected with climate change.”

Built after a long and participatory design process that engaged the local community, Collective Harvest is a series of independent spaces that have specific boundaries and functions, with a continuous and independent wood structure canopy roof that covers all of the spaces. The facility was built entirely with local products, including wood that is certified, meaning it is part of a reforestation cycle attested by Brazilian environment agencies. It also used bricks made of local soil, sand from a local river, and a minimal part of cement to stabilize the mixture.

The Holcim Awards jury praised the project’s “lack of hard definition and flexible simplicity” and how the “programmatic function of the building is solved through the elegant duality between light roofs and the massive walls to create volumes that accommodate the facilities.” It also noted the engagement of the community as a “remarkable contribution.”

Utrabo, whose Children Village was a finalist for the 2018 Mies Crown Hall Americas Prize, says the Holcim Award is significant to him personally because it recognizes not just this individual project, but also more broadly, his commitment to sustainable design. 

“[When you’re working] you’re not thinking about much apart from [the project]. Then when a prize like the Holcim Awards highlights your type of approach, it means that you are pushing in the right direction,” Utrabo says. “It’s not about the project, but how we approach the project, how we approach the community. It’s about how we thought of sustainability in a more holistic way.”

Photo: A rendering of the Collective Harvest project (provided by Gustavo Utrabo)