The connection paradox

Words: Fernando Serapião | Photos: Fábio Knoll

For nearly a half-century, the Brazilian state, working with leading architects, has attempted to upgrade informal settlements in the country’s biggest cities. We look at the context of this large-scale project as well as the efforts in two of São Paulo’s largest favelas

The recent urban interventions and upgrades in São Paulo’s two largest favelas, Heliópolis and Paraisópolis, prompt a question. What happens when the formal and informal city get together? What lessons, from both sides, can we take from this confluence? On the one hand, the formal city, can learn from the informal city particularly with regards to mixed-use, density and the synergy that exists between common and private space. On the other hand, social housing projects in informal areas need to endeavour not to facilitate unwanted social contagion that new apartment buildings can induce, such as segregation, for example, a commonplace occurrence in condominiums in the formal city.

“Since the early 20th century, there has been nothing left for the migrants who regard the city as a lifeline but the appeal to marginal behaviour,” said Brazilian architect Carlos Nelson Ferreira dos Santos, a pioneer in slum upgrading, in the late 1980s. “The growth at the expense of the favelas, decaying areas and semi-regularised settlements on the outskirts of big cities, has become a commonplace.” Ferreira dos Santos studied architecture in the polarised political context that followed the inauguration in April 1960 of Brasília as the country’s capital and the 1964 military coup d’état, which saw Brazil governed by a military dictatorship until 1985. The construction of the new capital tested, to the extreme, the idea of a modernist urban utopia. Its creators repeated ideas and expressions of early 20th century European and Russian avant- gardes, particularly those of the International Congresses of Modern Architecture (1928-59) and Le Corbusier, whose ideas responded to urban chaos of the post-industrial revolution.

One strategy was to divide the city by functions: transportation, work, recreation and dwelling. In this scenario, the house was one of the central points, treated like a machine, with industrial components and minimal dimensions. Following this ideological playbook, the housing problem would be solved with apartment buildings raised above ground by reinforced columns (or pilotis) and served by schools and community centres—what the Russians called social capacitors, or society transformers. These ideas found fertile soil in the tropics. One of the high points of modern Brazilian architecture is the Pedregulho housing development on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro, designed in 1946 by architect Affonso Eduardo Reidy.

Pedregulho generated substantial editorial and was hailed by European critics as one of the best buildings on the continent. Pedregulho houses a school, day-care and gym, all surrounded by a green setting created landscape architect Roberto Burle Marx and art by Cândido Portinari, one of Brazil’s most important modern painters. Its 570 apartments are spread over several blocks, the most surprising of which is a 260-metre-long building that snakes up a hillside. A Le Corbusier-inspired utopian proposal for Rio de Janeiro, Reidy’s design suggested a strong concept for replacing the shacks on the hills across the city.

São Paulo has a dense, vertical central city surrounded on its periphery by horizontal sprawl that has been expanded by clandestine roads lacking public infrastructure

But Pedregulho was not designed for favela dwellers: low-ranking officials from the city municipality occupied its apartments. In Brazil, most of the housing projects built between 1930 and 1960 were financed by the pension funds of different professional classes. Nobody associated favelas with housing finance. Consequently, the building programmes from this period did not cater to those living on the margins of society. Reidy did however work on a pioneering project for the population of Catacumba, a favela on a steep hill in the wealthy South Zone, between Copacabana and Ipanema on Lake Rodrigo de Freitas. Designed in 1951 and comprising 680 apartments, Reidy’s unrealised project was innovative both in terms of its housing policy and maintenance regime. In an interview with a newspaper of the time, Reidy stated: “There are those who criticise the choice of such a beautiful residential area for the construction of social housing. They are mistaken because there should be social housing in each neighbourhood, as each neighbourhood has its workers.”

The project was never built, and 20 years later local authorities settled the matter in the usual Brazilian way, forcibly removing 10 000 residents and transplanting them to degrading housing projects in the suburbs. If Reidy’s blueprints ended up in shelves or filing cabinets, the consequence of this episode has not been filed: some of Catacumba’s residents were relocated to Cidade de Deus, a favela whose cruel reality was described in Paulo Lins’s 1997 book, Cidade de Deus, later adapted by Fernando Meirelles into the acclaimed movie, City of God (2002).

Interior of a self-built home

Interior of a self-built home


In the 1960s Carlos Nelson Ferreira dos Santos’s ideas were still only crawling. Involved with the student movement, he collaborated with colleagues from medical school in social actions in Rio’s hillsides. By getting to know the reality of the city’s slums before engaging with architectural doctrines, Ferreira dos Santos was able to formulate a vision of the favela that was not solely grounded in modern pragmatism. In his view, government and society looked at the favelas with indifference. Until then, the government had not recognised these communities, nor were they part of any official city map. The favelas were regarded by everyone, perhaps even by their residents, as a temporary evil.

“It became a habit, a ‘normality’, to rely on housing typologies that, even subjected to systematic ‘extermination’ campaigns, had always been convenient,” said Ferreira dos Santos. “They served as the decompression valve as well, and they solved contradictions located far beyond the urban borders.” Ferreira dos Santos planted the seed of favela upgrading in Rio de Janeiro over 45 years ago.

Working with the favela dwellers of Brás de Pina, his team devised an alternative to the forced removal and transfer of residents to distant and anodyne housing, as envisaged by the municipality. His concept was based mainly on land tenure regularisation and the implementation of public infrastructure. Blending anthropology and architecture, he sought to understand built space by bringing together popular and erudite forms of knowledge. To continue reading subscribe or get  a copy of the print edition

No comments yet.

Leave a Reply