The Escola Júlia Kubitschek was built by Niemeyer at a pivotal moment in his career. It is quite symptomatic of what defines his work; between structural experimentation, public buildings and relations with political leaders.
Towards a new education policy
The 20th century in Brazil saw an evolution in the collaboration between mass education policies and modernist ideas. In 1932, the Manifesto dos Pioneiros da Educação Nova (Manifest of New Education Pioneers) advocated the universalization of free, secular public schools. It emerged in a context of transition, after the collapse of the First Brazilian Republic, where education was only accessible to a very small ruling class, thus reproducing an elite intellectual caste and excluding the majority of the population. The Escola Nova movement (New Education movement), was gaining momentum at this time. Education policy had been so far very regionalized during the First Republic, but after its fall, the Brazilian state strengthened its influence in national education.
Architecture and education in Brazil
The beginning of the 60s followed this reform of national education. But it was mainly the construction of Brasilia, under the impetus of Juscelino Kubitschek at the end of the 50s, that was the perfect example of the union between new public policies and modernist ideas. Brasilia’s educational plan was drafted by Anísio Teixeira (one of the signatories of the 1932 manifesto) and drawn up in conjunction with the city’s urban plan, defining the basic guidelines for implementing an innovative educational model for the new capital. BRasilia would then be the perfect laboratory for applying the ideas of the Escola Nova, and it needed buildings adapted to the new educational theories, which Brazilian modernist architects, spearheaded by Oscar Niemeyer, constructed. He notably began in 1957, building the first public school in the Distrito Federal in 20 days, the Grupo Escolar 1, later also renamed Júlia Kubitschek.
In the 1980s, a project for a new educational reform, drafted by Darcy Ribeiro and under the impetus of Leonel Brizola, saw the construction of almost 500 CIEP (Integrated Public Education Centers) or Brizolões, mainly in the state of Rio de Janeiro, and in the south of the country. The architectural project designed by Niemeyer involved the use of prefabricated concrete parts forming three structures, making the unit less costly and, above all, reproducible throughout the state and the country. The educational project, on the other hand, was designed to generalize education, occupy spaces forgotten by educational policies and guarantee not only educational but also social and economic support for children.
Oscar Niemeyer is probably the most emblematic architect to have contributed to the expansion of public education in Brazil. He collaborated with Juscelino Kubitschek long before the construction of Brasilia, combining speed and economy of construction, programmatic unity and remarkable architecture. Their meeting dates back to the 1940s, when Kubitschek was Prefeito of Belo Horizonte and invited Niemeyer to realize his first major project, the Pampulha complex, where the architect already experimented with the versatility of concrete. In 1950, when Kubitschek became governor of Minas Gerais, he asked Niemeyer to build a public elementary school in Diamantina, his home town, along with other important buildings in the city. The Escola Júlia Kubitschek (named after the governor’s mother) is representative of the link between modern architecture and public policy at the time.
The new face of Diamantina, from preserved to modern
The location of the school in Diamantina was a political choice in itself, as the site chosen is located near the historic center of the city, listed as a National Heritage Site. As a result, Niemeyer had to ensure the integration of a resolutely modern building amidst preserved 18th-century architecture. In essence, it was also a question of showing that Kubitschek’s progressive, modern ideas could help Brazil move forward without distorting it.
To facilitate the integration of the school, Niemeyer chose to house all programmatic activities in a single horizontal volume, ensuring continuity in the urban landscape. The semi-open lower section follows the natural slope of the land, while the upper section features a facade emerging from the base, to protect the classrooms from the sun. The sloping facade had already been tested by the architect for the Residência Prudente de Moraes Neto, a project based on ideas he had developed for the above-mentioned project in Pampulha. Niemeyer repeated this use of concrete in other projects commissioned in Diamantina. Mainly for the construction of the Hotel Tijuco where the idea of a sloping horizontal façade was combined with Niemeyer’s famous V-shaped pillars.
The sides of the school are blind and its sharp angles contrast with the main facade of the building, which is open to the city, only disturbed by an off-center canopy. Stilts beneath the building provides a semi-open space for recreation in inclement weather. Finally an access ramp to the upper level was also built from the rear, allowing permanent light into the classrooms, protected from direct sunlight.
The construction of the Kubitschek school was completed rapidly, along with the other buildings in Diamantina, giving the governor legitimacy and credibility for his political projects. As for Niemeyer, he will remain associated both with the field of public education and with state-sponsored projects. the fruitful collaboration between the two will reach its peak when Kubitschek, recently elected president, entrusted him with the Brasilia project alongside Lucio Costa.