Ilópolis is a very small town in the south of Brazil in the hilly, ‘unspoilt’ region near the river Taquari. With a county population of four thousand, the urban area consists of about thirty street blocks. The Colognese Mill, one block away from the main square, where the church, the hotel and the town hall are situated, is one of several mills in the region that originated from the efforts of Italian immigrants to survive and settle in southern Brazil.
Life became difficult in Italy for farmers and small business owners in the late 19th and early 20th century due to political disadvantages and poor economical conditions. Together with immigration incentives by the Brazilian government, this led entire families to leave their native country and move to the New World. Brazil allocated uncultivated, uninhabited plots of land for the colonies. Arriving in this unexplored territory, by sheer necessity of survival, the families started to build shelters, plant sweetcorn, wheat, grapes, raise livestock, and build mills to guarantee basic supplies of what they were accustomed to: polenta, cakes, wine and bread. More than relics of the hopes and determination of the immigrants, some of the mills are still in use today. However, the number of mills still producing flour is getting smaller.
The earliest register of the Colognese Mill dates from 1910. It is made of timber from the native pine tree Araucária angustifolia, a species which has become a symbol of southern Brazil. Like many mills, it was powered by a diesel engine; waterpower was less common.
In the 1990s, with the death of the last miller to work in the Colognese Mill, the building became abandoned and fell into decay. It remained a forgotten milestone in a quiet town until Judith Cortesão, a Portuguese anthropologist and ecologist, came across the constructions on a study trip with her students and started to point out the historical value of the mills and urged their preservation. From then on, an avalanche of actions were taken, which resulted in the erection of the Bread Museum, Confectioner’s School and the refurbished Colognese Mill.
The architects of Brasil Arquitetura Studio, Francisco Fanucci, Marcelo Ferraz and Anselmo Turazzi, became involved at the very start of this process. Together with Manuel Touguinha, a loyal disciple of Judith Cortesão and now one of the directors of the complex, and a number of committed people from Ilópolis, they founded the Association of the Friends of the Mills of Alto Taquari in 2004. Thus it was possible to obtain financial means, as well as political and technical support from various sources: sponsorship from Nestlé Brasil, funding from the Cultural Incentive Programme of the Rio Grande do Sul government, courses about restoration for local craftsmen by the Italo-Latin American Institute (IILA).
In the meantime, the architectural project was developed by Brasil Arquitetura Studio in São Paulo. In this case, ‘architectural project’ needs to be understood in a broad sense. A programme needed to be established and its main task was to bring the old mill back to life, to be visited and to be useful again. First, it was evident that the mill had to fulfil its old function again, to make flour. As a complement, two new volumes were planned to house the Bread Museum and the Confectioners’ School.
One of the main concerns, according to Francisco Fanucci, was for the new volumes not to compete with the sturdy mill and to make them work on an urban scale. This resulted in low blocks perpendicular to the street grid. They embrace the old Colognese Mill at a respectful distance, creating a garden in the space between. The museum is placed alongside the street that connects to the main square of the town. The exhibition space is configured by concrete slabs for the roof and the raised floor, concrete columns with a timber capital, and is enclosed by frameless glass panels. Its transparency reveals the museum objects to the passer-by and leads to what may be considered the front of the complex. In the garden, parallel to the transparent block, a sequence of millstones is displayed at such a distance that allows them to also be viewed from inside the museum. In the rear part of this building block there is a small multimedia lecture theatre, separated from the exhibition space by its characteristic red curtain.
The Confectioners’ School contrasts the lightness of the museum with concrete walls that anchor it firmly to the ground, ‘like a ship entering harbour’. The slab of the roof garden folds up before meeting the external walls and throughout the main part of the day indirect light enters the generous kitchen. The large central table can serve as much for lunches or dinners for up to twenty people, as a platform for changing and refining recipes during class discussions, kneading the dough for bread, etc.
A timber walkway connects the two new volumes and the mill. Its crisscross railing is inspired by the verandas and balconies of the local houses. The walkway allows the visitor to peek through the windows into the kitchen at teaching time, during which for hygiene reasons visitors are not permitted in, it turns into a bridge and leads one to the mill’s former flour store. As part of the strategy to attract visitors, this part has become the complex’s bar and a small shop. Through a glass pane, which substitutes some of the timber slats of the division between store and machine room, one can witness the movement and the noises from the grinding stone and all the pulleys and timber tubes of the mill in action.
A strong characteristic of the new insertions beside the centennial mill building is their use of material. The marks of the raw pine boards used as formwork are imprinted into the exposed concrete. The resemblance of texture and appearance of the new buildings with the old mill is growing with time, as both concrete and the refurbished timber cladding of the mill pass through the weathering of a few seasons. A serene tribute is paid to the old.
With this conjunction of old and new, of tradition and invention, museography becomes an integral element of the architecture. The first exhibit of the Bread Museum is the mill itself. Within the museum, a timeline demonstrates the long history of bread, one of the oldest and most varied types of food of the world. The pieces related to bread making have been captured from the region: old farm tools, kitchen utensils, historic documents and photographs. Furthermore, the exhibition includes a section about the importance and the meaning of bread in different religions.
Route of the Taquari Mills
After the spontaneous initiative for the Colognese Mill, the idea gained impulse and the aim became to extend its reach: mills of neighbouring small towns like Arvorezinha, Anta Gorda, and Putinga will also be restored and brought back to use in order to together form a ‘Route of the Mills’.
Brasil Arquitetura Studio is now developing the project for the Castaman Mill, which, besides the refurbished mill, will include a small boarding house and an exhibition space in an old timber warehouse also dedicated to bread making.
As opposed to trying to be original – in the restrictive sense of the word – the architects adopt inspirations with open eyes and take on influences open-mindedly. Examples of this are the water feature which runs along the edge of the plot, the use of rough exposed concrete, the rainwater gargoyles on the school roof, or the way the pieces are exhibited in the museum. These elements are, however, used to make a creative whole. The decision-making is at the same time nonchalant when working on ideas and rigorous when defending an idea. It is a process which oscillates between chance and control, and, by the way, also reflects the technical facilities and limitations of the construction industry in southern Brazil. On the one hand, the role of the architect is here understood as all-embracing: collector, historian or history-teller, discoverer, and inventor. On the other hand, he is seen as one of many who participate in the project during the entire process. The involvement of local people has been essential for a successful continuation of the project.
The two contemporary buildings have succeeded in establishing a renewed context for the mill, condemned to disappear. They resuscitate an original part of the immigrant heritage of the region, attesting to its status as a cultural, architectural and technical document of the past, and reinsert it into the present day-to-day of the town.