Partnerships between ETH Zurich and Brazil

Timber construction, informal architecture and biofuels – research partnerships, visiting professorships, start-ups and student projects: all these things connect ETH Zurich and World Cup host Brazil.

The «Grotão – Fábrica de Música», the «Music Factory» by the two ETH architects Alfredo Brillembourg and Hubert Klumpner, aims to open up new opportunities for people living in a favela in São Paulo. (Picture: Alfredo Brillembourg, Hubert Klumpner)

Gilles Maag is getting excited. In just a few days he will be in São Paulo, his new home for at least the next two years. There, the CEO of the ETH start-up «Sunbiotec» will be working as a postdoc, researching solar energy. As soon as he gets his visa, he’ll be off. «If all goes well, I’ll be there before the World Cup,» he says happily.

«Sunbiotec» was born in 2012 out of the laboratory run by Professor Aldo Steinfeld of the Institute of Energy Technology. On the basis of Steinfeld’s research, Maag developed his first market-ready solar reactor for producing biofuels from organic agricultural waste products. He was interested in Brazil as a future market right from the start. Firstly, because the solar powered reactor needs a lot of sunshine and secondly, because the large-scale agriculture industry generates masses of organic waste. Furthermore, biofuels are now well established in Brazil.

Maag therefore entered into a partnership with the «Universidade de São Paulo», whereby over recent months a laboratory was made available to him for short visits. Now a joint application has been submitted to build a pilot plant with local industrial partners. It is intended to serve primarily as a demonstration plant for future investors. «In the end, PowerPoint presentations just aren’t enough,» explains Maag. «Our potential partners and investors now need to see something tangible as quickly as possible.» He hopes to put the first commercial large-scale reactor into operation in Brazil by 2020.
Research in the «City of God»

Gilles Maag’s involvement in Brazil is by no means unusual any more. In 2009, Switzerland and Brazil signed a bilateral agreement on closer cooperation in science and technology. Today, ETH Zurich has a total of 45 research partnerships with Brazilian partners. The Department of Architecture, for example, has been working in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo for years. As part of the Master’s course in Urban Design, students have been carrying out research in Brazilian «favelas» (slums) since 2011. They have made several research trips to observe and document urban development and living conditions. 2013 saw the publication of the book «Cidade de Deus» .

The district of Rio de Janeiro bearing the same name was set up in the 1960s by the government to try to tackle the desperate housing shortage. Thousands of standardised and largely identical buildings were erected in a short time. Subsequently, «Cidade de Deus» for years became the scene of virtual war between drugs gangs and the police. However, according to author Marc Angélil, Professor of Architecture and Design at the Institute for Urban Design, the quality of life in the district has improved greatly over the last five years. Researchers and students have studied and catalogued how the residents succeeded in using creativity and informal structures to convert their district into an individualised environment that was adapted to suit local needs. In the recently published follow-up publication «Minha Casa – Nossa Cidade!» , Professor Marc Angélil and his colleague Rainer Hehl and their students analysed the current government programme to provide the destitute in the favelas with homes. Three million new residential units are to be built.

«The types of houses are in some ways very similar to those of the 1960s,» says Marc Angélil. «The risk that the mistakes made with Cidade de Deus will be repeated is very great.» That is why the architects have developed proposals for a popular architecture that takes more account of the needs and lifestyles of the future residents. With some success: «When we introduced our project a year ago in a gallery in Rio de Janeiro, we were overwhelmed by the response,» says Angélil. Half a million people protested on a public square in front of the gallery, demanding better housing and living conditions. The relevant minister took heed of this event, went to see the exhibition and invited Rainer Hehl, Angélil’s colleague, to a meeting. Now Hehl, under the auspices of the government and together with local partners, is to build 500 homes which take account of the knowledge that has been built up over four years of research.
Music factory and timber construction

Angélil’s fellow professors Alfredo Brillembourg and Hubert Klumpner also have a weakness for Brazil. In 2011, they won the Holcim Award for sustainable construction for their project «Grotão – Fábrica de Música» . One day, this multipurpose cultural centre will stand in the middle of Paraisópolis, one of the largest favelas in São Paulo, with a population of more than 100,000. It is a place where life is precarious, with no room for cultural or community activities. The «Music Factory», consisting of a music school, concert hall, sports centre and public arena, is designed to be a catalyst for community spirit and creativity that will offer the people new opportunities. Social, economic and environmental sustainability go hand-in-hand: wind cooling, wastewater reprocessing and hybrid solar panels are intended to reduce the consumption of energy and resources as far as possible.

Sustainability is also the theme of the partnership between Annette Spiro’s professorship and the Faculty of Architecture and Urbanism at the University of São Paulo. In 2012, the partner institutions organised a symposium in São Paulo on the subject of timber construction. Despite being available in vast quantities, timber still plays only a niche role in Brazilian architecture. The main purpose of the symposium was the sharing of knowledge and experience between architects, engineers and timber construction companies on the one hand and academics and researchers from Switzerland and Brazil on the other. An exhibition was held at the same time, documenting how the local population in a small village in Matto Grosso introduced 11 ETH students to the traditional craft of timber construction. In the light of the great interest and positive feedback from the symposium, a timber construction laboratory is currently being built at the university. This means that more is being achieved than the partners initially hoped for: for the first time ever, timber construction is becoming rooted in education and research in Brazil.

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