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Natal’s other arena: Arena do Morro by Herzog and de Meuron

Herzog & de Meuron’s simple and elegant pro bono gymnasium strengthens the social fabric of the Brazilian favela of Mãe Luíza, writes Hattie Hartman. Photography by Iwan Baan

The day before I visited Herzog and de Meuron’s Arena do Morro gymnasium in Natal, Brazil, a nearby landslide left more than 80 families without shelter in Mãe Luíza, the urbanised favela where the project is located. My meeting was at the local church, also the collection point for donations for the evacuated families, and my guide was Ion Andrade, a paediatrician and vice-president of the Centro Sócio-Pastoral (CSP), a church-based community organisation with more than three decades of involvement in Mãe Luíza and part-client for the gymnasium. We filled the car with bottled water for local residents and set off.

Situated on Brazil’s north-eastern coast and capital of the state of Rio Grande do Norte, the Natal metropolitan area has more than 1.3 million inhabitants. As one of the country’s 12 World Cup host cities, Natal now boasts a Populous-designed stadium as well as an international airport, reflecting the government’s desire to attract European and North American tourists to the region’s spectacular beaches. Natal is unique among Brazilian coastal cities because a state park created in 1977 protects a linear dune along the coast and has kept the city’s development at bay from the beachfront.

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The tourist maps printed for World Cup visitors make no mention of Mãe Luíza. This neighbourhood of more than 17,000 people occupies one of the map’s blank spaces at the city’s edge, abutting a stretch of dunes that is not protected as part of the park. Only the Mãe Luíza lighthouse, a prominent landmark, appears on the map.

As we drive down one of the favela’s crowded shopping streets, Andrade describes the community work which has culminated in the construction of the Arena do Morro gymnasium. A school, an old people’s home, and a healthcare initiative that reduced infant mortality from 65 per 1,000 to 14 per 1,000 over a five-year period are among recent projects, many supported by the Ameropa Foundation, the other client (and funder) for the project. The foundation is the philanthropic arm of Swiss grain and fertiliser company Ameropa, a third-generation family business which has been active in Rio Grande do Norte for over half a century. Herzog & de Meuron designed Ameropa’s headquarters near Basel, completed in 2001.

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‘We could have chosen a cheap structure but I wanted something beautiful, because Mãe Luíza is a special community. I asked Jacques [Herzog] and Pierre [de Meuron] if they would do it for free,’ explains Nicole Miescher, president of the Ameropa Foundation’s board. Herzog & de Meuron senior partner Ascan Mergenthaler recalls Miescher’s appeal: ‘You’ve designed beautiful stadia all over the world and it would be the greatest thing for the kids of Mãe Luíza if they could have a stadium designed by you.’

The architects agreed, on the proviso that they undertake background research on Mãe Luíza first. The result was A Vision for Mãe Luíza, a 200‑page report prepared in collaboration with the local university, which sets out a plan for strengthening the physical fabric of the community. A key proposal is improved access from the heart of Mãe Luíza to the beach (on which it currently turns its back) and creation of a public park to protect the adjacent dune, following original proposals by landscape architect Roberto Burle Marx.

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As we pull up to the gymnasium, I am surprised to see a strip of perfectly manicured lawn and wonder if this will turn out to be yet another overblown project parachuted in by international architects. Immediately adjacent is an unrefurbished state school. Once inside, my scepticism dissipates as I take in the play of dappled light through the white aluminium roof and the louvred concrete block walls. The interior is a calming haven from the intense tropical sun and heat outdoors.

The hangar-like building is an exercise in simplicity. Robust materials, sourced or manufactured locally, have been cleverly reinterpreted. Subtly curved exterior walls, circular room enclosures and an irregular eave line complete what is essentially an extruded shed. The whole ensemble appears effortless.

Mergenthaler links the genesis of the project to the roof structure of a former gym on the site. ‘It was a very precise line of thinking conceptually from beginning to end. The remainder of the former roof covering the sports field defined the zoning envelope, and it was a straightforward move to extend it virtually over the entire site. We felt that the curvy walls were important because the building would be more like a playful landscape: the facade would not be an architectural barrier but more like a membrane, bulging inside and out.’

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Large hangars - for industry, sport or festivity - are common in Brazil’s north-east. Shelter from sun and tropical downpours is what’s needed, and no environmental conditioning is required, particularly if prevailing winds can be captured. What’s exceptional here is the quality of light. It shimmers through the gaps between the roof’s white corrugated aluminium sandwich panels and steel structure and reflects off the white granilite floor and off the bespoke white concrete blocks of the envelope.

The gap between the roof panels was the ‘fundamental trick’, says Mergenthaler. ‘If you build a normal roof, it’s pitch black and heat cannot escape; we had the idea of adjusting the steel structure to leave a gap between the panels. It’s a normal panel with a standard format and size, which you can buy everywhere. It hasn’t been cut. We played around a lot with these gaps until we reached an ideal overlap, so that you have enough light coming in, but you still cut out enough rain.’ Heat that collects under the roof is removed by the breeze.

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The impression is a delicacy which contrasts markedly with Oscar Niemeyer’s soaring curvilinear forms and with Brazil’s Brutalist school, exemplified by Vilanova Artigas and Paulo Mendes da Rocha’s work in São Paulo. I’m reminded of Niemeyer’s precast Integrated Centres of Public Education, rolled out in Rio de Janeiro in the ’90s and wonder if this more modest Lego-like approach could be replicated elsewhere.

It’s too early to judge what impact the gleaming gymnasium will have on Mãe Luíza. Miescher and Andrade both recount an incident of favela youngsters who arrived with guns on their first visit to the building and now participate in weekly sports sessions - without their weapons.

In Radical Cities: Across Latin America in Search of a New Architecture (2014), Justin McGuirk damns the profligate contribution of global starchitects, favouring instead the nimbleness of a new generation of activist architects who perform ‘urban acupuncture’: small strategic interventions which kick‑start communities. In Mãe Luíza, with the guidance of an informed client with deep local roots in the community, Swiss precision has performed elegant acupuncture indeed.

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