Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Back to Bolivia

For my last stint in South America, I returned to the outskirts of La Paz, Bolivia, to the sprawling city of El Alto. I decided to rent a room in the neighborhood of Senkata ($30 a month, no bathroom) and get to know the built environment and people a little better than I had on my previous visit ( I was really curious to better understand the built environment of a city that has been termed the ”Rebel City.” Because on the surface, there seemed to be nothing rebellious about most of the housing.

It was a bit of tense time, as the country almost fell into chaos, after Bolivia’s own ‘9-11’, when almost thirty people were killed in a clash between supporters and detractors of President Morales and his attempts to shift revenues from the wealthy lowlands to poorer highlands. For background, see
Immediately after the massacre, President Morales expelled the US ambassador (accusing him of helping orchestrate a coup) and the State Department ordered all U.S. Citizens to leave. So, heading back to such a country and to a city that has consistently rebelled against neoliberal and privatized interests, I, of course, did have some question about how I would be received. But, as in most places, the policies of the government are often very different from the people themselves, and I was received with nothing but sheer warmth, even from the city authorities. But, the intense political climate did shape a number of my experiences there.
On October 20, tens of thousands of people converged on La Paz to demand Congress to ratify a new constitution. Many of them had begun walking form Oruro five days earlier and we had been hearing about it for many days. Here were some of my reflections immediately afterwards:

The massive march came through today. It is huge. Even by 7 am, people were scurrying around, trying to meet up with folks, and participate in the mass that eventually would descend into La Paz. There was so much indiginous dress and wimpalas (indigenous flags). There was a serious energy with everyone jockeying, slowly filling up the roads, as trucks and vans trying to continue with the everyday work battled through. A neighbor went to take his kids to school. They came back, no school. A guy selling DVD’s about the massacre in Pando came through. Finally, Evo made his way through. The crowd surged around him, chanting, “Evo, Evo.” Behind him were tens of thousands of Bolivians, mostly indigenous Aymara Indians who had been walking for 5 days from near Oruro. They don’t have Nike’s here, and the local health workers are out helping hand out water and deal with foot injuries. Everyone has their radio on. The announcers are speaking with excitement like a football match. There is a spirit of festivity, but also determination and antagonism with a number of groups highlighting the recent massacre in Pando. There is music, there is every type of traditional dress you could imagine. It feels like an independence day, and I guess in some ways, it is almost like a new independence day for many of these folks, as they are pressing for congress to ratify the new constitution. You can’t help but moved by the solidarity and power among such people here. I was standing on an overpass over the main road, as far as I could see in both directions were people marching.

The march essentially shut down the city, as other people came in from all over the country from all directions. By far, the greatest amount of people were descending from El Alto through La Ceja (on the rim of the city). The sight of tens of thousands of people descending from the altiplano down into the city of La Paz is quite extraordinary. People ended up staying in Plaza Murillo overnight, all the schools shut down and housed the tens of thousands of people.

In La Paz, there was a lot of grumbling about the march (especially among middle class), how it is messing up all the transportation and everything. They were saying they heard that Evo had paid everyone Bs.100 to participate. It is a little weird to see how integrated the government is in political stuff like this. The entire municipality was out marching, and supporting people. But, not everyone is for this, and it is clear who this government is supporting. And Evo is getting a lot of power from them. It is a trip how the altiplano and highlands filters down into the city to fundamentally disrupt that way of life.

On October 21, Congress ratified the new constitution. I was eating lunch and they were showing a huge party on the TV in Plaza Murillo. I could hear horns honking outside. And then, there were more and more flares and firecrackers. I happened to call the cab driver who picked me up at the airport on my arrival, as we had hit it off and he was building a house nearby. He said they were going to celebrate the new constitution by drinking beer, and he wanted me to join them. And so we shared a Pacena (bolivian beer) and celebrated the new constitution. They were excited. They said there would be no more racism and discrimination against Indians. Schools are being required to teach Aymara, Quechua and English. Even Elhoy’s (a neighbor) daughters can speak Aymara. I asked him about it, and he said they were learning it in school now, ever since Evo came to power. Everywhere around in El Alto are signs up for new schools and housing. There is a lot of hope and dreams about the future for people here. There is a band of zamponas and drums playing furiously down the street celebrating what people here are calling the new Bolivia. The sounds drift as in a village on the Altiplano, yet they bounce and reverberate among the new, yet unfinished multistory buildings.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Rio. Pedregulho and Favelas

Pedregulho and Context

On the way to the Metro

Pedregulho entrance


favela edge

favela edge

favela upgrading

While in Rio, I visited Pedregulho housing, designed by Affonso Eduardo Reidy and built around 1950. It has 6 floors and 272 apartments. It is quite a contrast to anything around there, and neatly connects with the terrain as it weaves around the hillside. The third floor offers is open and offers a great experience of moving into the building, and then gains a commanding view of the surrounding neighborhood, which off to one side consists of a very dense fabric of favelas. However, they both seem to relate to each other, with the colors, and texture of lived in buildings. There, I initially saw two options on where to get involved on the housing issues for architects and planners. And that was a tough option. Pedregulho (architect’s disregard for people’s lives) on the left and the favelas (state and society’s disregard for people’s lives) on the right. It kind of depressed me, because on the surface, it looked like Pedregulho was a mess and disaster. It seemed run down, oppressive (scale of the building in the context), and irresponsive to people’s needs. And the favelas were rough and difficult. You can tell by looking at them. There is not much romanticizing for me anymore. Reading about Janice Perlman’s revisiting the Rio favelas (Marginality: From Myth to Reality in the Favelas of Rio de Janeiro: 1969-2002) helped made that clear to me. Despite all the work and upgrading over the years, of programs like the Favela Bairro program, people feel even more marginalized. Drugs and violence are associated with many that lives within, but most people are actually victims of it, not the perpetrators. And there is not much choice.

But, I am not so down on architects at the moment, but at the conditions in which we have to operate and try to solve problems. Being clear on what is in the realm of architecture is very important. I really wonder what people living in the public housing in the US really thought about the architecture and design of their environments. I am sure there are a ton of them who felt connected and had a found a good community, amidst all the problems.

While I was standing at the main floor, sketching, someone asked me what I was up to. He turned out to be a really nice guy, practicing his English, and he graciously offered to take me around. We went to his small one bedroom unit, then upstairs to his parent’s place, then to a friend’s unit, then underneath the building, and finally to the back to have a beer with other residents of the building.

He said that it was good there, much better than the favelas around. There was no violence or shootings. It was close to a metro, but here location is not always the key condition. The problem with formality is the set of rules and constraints within it. And consequently, someone sets the rules, and it is not always a formal process.

Inside, each unit was in pretty good shape, although it varied as to how well people took care of their space. But, there were computers, refrigerators, etc. Most physical improvements came from things like the tiling of the spaces. The outside space and walkway of people, which served as a kind of interior street was kept in really good shape and offered a nice experience. The overall fa├žade didn’t look good, but is who is responsible for that? The state? Because if you look at what people themselves take care of vs. what the state, etc does, then things are different. Underneath the building, water and sewage run openly down the structure.

I felt the warmth of people, I couldn’t resist an offer to stay for dinner (as usual). After finishing up the meal, we realized it was getting dark, and I was still a ways from the metro. My host expressed concern as I would have to move on the periphery of the favelas. But, he sent me with a neighbor and her children who were heading the same way. She was nervous and anxious, as much for me as for her children. Yet, I got a brief of sense of the anxiety that people must feel in these neighborhoods, as the violence and militarization is extensive.

Before I arrived in Rio, I had suspicions about the notions of the favelas, as most other informal and poorer areas in other parts of the world had felt like some of the safest places in the city. They kind of watch over you there, as they sprawl up the hillsides in all parts of the city. It is quite extraordinary and a contrast from Sao Paulo, where you could move around without ever knowing they exist. Everyone has heard about the favelas of Rio, and the violence and drugs are no joke. And there is a certain draw, myth, and romanticization, so much so that there are even favela tours, a part of a growing industry of slum tourism. (In my hostel, there were advertisements for a trip to Rocinha, where we guarantee that "kids will be greeting you with a smiling and happy face." From a very distant realm, thought the realities became very real to me. I met with an architect, Jorge Mario Juaregui, who had won a number of awards for his work with Favela-Bairro upgrading program, and is currently involved in a massive upgrading project to develop new housing, economic opportunities, and transportation (cable cars) options to connect the hilltops. I tagged along with his driver to drive to get in a little deeper. We stayed on the edge, drove around and saw lines and lines of military troops. As we were about to leave, I asked if we could go further in, and he looked at me like I was crazy, and turned his fingers into guns and went,”rat, tat, tat, tat.” So, what is the realm of the architect here? Hard to say, many people criticize the work of the upgrading programs as they try to formalize the favelas, integrating them into the rest of the city, often through ‘urban acupuncture’ where new buildings, stairs, and community centers are added with cool designs and bright colors. But, even with that, people feel more disconnected and marginalized than ever. It will be interesting to see how some of the new proposals actively address the much deeper issues there.
Until then, the favelas will remain deep in our collective imagination. They are some of the most beautiful and evocative structures I had seen all year, and the connection to the topography, and the resulting spatial conditions are quite extraordinary, yet oppressive. So for now, the favelas will continue to strike a chord in creative minds, doing what little that can be, to try and look at things a little differently. Here is one approach.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Sao Paulo. Paraisopolis.


One day, I got lost in a city of walls. It was pretty extraordinary how fortified and different the affluent neighborhoods are. I went wandering trying to find a favela. I found Paraisopolis, only through some images on from the internet. I was interested in the juxtaposition. It was one of the most extraordinary I had seen. Private swimming pools on balconies cantilevered over a favela. I was on foot. I followed a google map I had. It showed clearly streets running through the suburban type rich neighborhood into the densely packed favela right next to it. The google map was wrong, and it was impossible to move between the two zones. In fact, there were walls, barbed wire and security guards. Not surprising at all, stark and amazing on the ground and in person. The guards were everywhere. On the entrance to the substreets. On the actual streets, on foot, cars, and on bikes, and then in the doorways below the electrified fences on the houses. Why didn’t they stop me? White? Who do they stop then? How many layers are really needed? Does this create violence or is the proximity? Both zones are fighting for access and location in the city. One wanted to get away from it, and the other wanted to get to it. Now they are right next to each other, and the consequences are drastic. A professor at Berkeley has written a book called City of Walls about Sao Paulo. In many cases when security and isolation has increased between neighborhoods, violence has increased. A very worthy topic of much more exploration.
All these experiences have left me a little sour, partly because how striking the differences are in Sao Paulo and it reminded me a lot of the other cities in the world. And while Brazil has a lot of new and progressive policies, this place is fucked up, and so is most of the world. I began to look at incrementality a little differently. In reality, incrementality represents injustice, lack of resources, lack of investment, anbandonement, etc. The reason people have to build that way is because they have no other choice. Where it looks like they have choice on the outside, do they really have choice on the inside? And what choice are we talking about here? Location, aspirations, improvement, development, etc? It’s all there. incrementality needs to be seen in a much more critical light. Many houses (even wealthy) ones are incremental. So, what is the point? Often, the middle and upper class can work closely with the architect, they feel empowered, they have ownership in the process. But, they are not challenging anything else beyond the existing reality, or perceptions. Incrementality works because allows people to exist and play in the consumer market and global consumption game. It allows them to improve, but on a more individualistic scale. And that is where the world is going. And look at the result of it. It ain’t pretty. Or is it?
Based on a lot of more famous images of Paraisopolis, you would think there was extreme wealth next to extreme poverty. Wandering on the ground and talking to some folks in the municipality, it is clear that Paraisopolis is a highly developed favela with tons of work, economic activity, and social structures very well in place. The city has had an active role in upgrading a lot of it. Does it have to do with its proximity to the wealth right around it? At least they are not trying to redevelop it like Dharavi.

Sao Paulo. Periphery. Diadema

I tagged along with Tatiana as she visited an NGO working in the periphery in a place called Diadema. It had become a separate urban municipality right outside Sao Paulo and much of the housing stock was informal. We were visiting an NGO called Rede Cultural do Beija Flor. ( The place was flowing with creative energy, unlike almost anywhere I had seen. Between music, dance, art, and leadership development, this place had been taking a lot of kids off the streets and offering alternatives for a number of the other kids in the areas growing up in favelas. The results were extraordinary. They had built, designed and painted an entire complex. Youth could come there and spend all day. There were art and painting classes. Graffiti and other street artists would come and give work shops. All kinds of music was explored there, even the youngest kids were playing beautiful things. But some of the more extraordinary work seemed to be coming out of the high schoolers. They had a couple of projects going on. Many of them were heavily involved in breakdancing. With a deep and obvious connection to capoeira, many of these kids understand it in a different way, both physically, spiritually, and mentally. About a month before I had been there, they hosted one of the largest break dancing competitions in Sao Paulo. The scene was amazing. Check out the incredible moves. The youth produced this video:

They were also working on multiple projects documenting and interviewing part of a community that had been living on a trash dump. You can check out some of their work here:
We went and visited a community these youth were working in. Some of the housing there was the worst I had seen. But the most extraordinary thing was the transition of the formal to the informal. In this case, it was represented by power lines. Along the road, there was a point where the municipal power line ended. And at point were about 100 lines attached to it with clamps, extending in a tangle all the way down the road, propped up by sticks and poles.
There are two words that have been on my mind much during my travels but resurfaced during this visit: CAPACITY and AGENCY. It was clear that finding unique and innovative ways to tap into people’s creativity is quite extraordinary. And while much of my focus has been on housing and buildings and how they can help increase capacity and agency, so much of the development of communities and people happens outside the realm of the built environment. Yet, it can still be enhanced by the built environment, and this was one place where that was happening.
With that said, I want to make two points. Favelas can be extremely developed and sophisticated neighborhoods with many opportunities for people. This is not the norm, but it is certainly possible. And I am not expressing my amazement with the work that was being produced here because these are kids from the favela. Well, maybe a bit, but no matter who is doing that kind of artistic exploration at that age, I find it extraordinary, regardless of class or socioeconomic background.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Sao Paulo. Cidade Tirandentes & Mutiraoes

Cidade Tirandentes (source: wikipedia)
I had been really wanting see what was going on in the periphery. I could look at in Google Earth, but figuring out how to get out there and where to go was certainly not easy. I linked up with a great group, Uniao Nacional por Moradia Popular (UNMP) ( and the leader of it spent a little speaking with me. She invited me to a signing ceremony of a new housing project to move people out of some favelas. It had taken them 6 years to get to a point of signing an agreement. The big party spilled out into the neighborhood street. She linked me up with a young architect doing work with mutiraos. These were housing projects run and managed (even constructed) by the future residents. I was interested in this model, because in Brazil, under Lula’s leadership and because of the active participation of so many people in the production of their city, progressive policy has given into new partnerships to effectively transfer some power and decision making to communities and social movements. And the mutirao is one such example. The state basically gives money to local groups and communities to develop the housing on their own.
Paulo Freire Mutirao
On a cool, gray, Saturday morning, we took a long subway ride, and then a long bus ride. We passed through Cidade Tiradentes, one of the largest public housing projects in the Latin America (almost 40,000 people live there). It is quite striking. Riding past them, I am reminded of jails in the US. Of course, it has to do with the fences, the monotony, but also the tall water towers that dot the landscape. At certain ridges, you can look along in the distance and all you see is such buildings. One after another, after another. But, it is an election year, so they are freshly painted.
In this case, the state asks developers to build them. Efficiency is the key and they work hard to maximize their profit. If they can more done for less, they then they will have more profit. The result is obvious, although I wouldn’t say the quality isn’t that bad. My friend told me that the process of the mutiraos can get 14 sq.m. more (56 sq. m. vs. 42 sq. m.) with about $5000 less, with the active participation of residents to be involved in the design and construction on their future homes. And more space is critical to people. Unfortunately, with the state housing, people have been brought from many places and communities around the city and this stuffing together without much consideration has generation extensive violence here as well. My guide felt strongly that moving all such people to periphery was intentional. It got people out of the central locations where it would free up for wealthier people, and it supported large construction companies, who have many close ties to the government.
State Housing
The mutirao was an interesting project. I can’t say it was the most engaging, beautiful or innovation architectural approach. They were trying to use steel instead of brick and concrete for the structure to allow for a quicker construction time, but in the end it had sacrificed aesthetic. But to most people who will soon have a new home and community, that is something of minimal importance. But it is to us architects. The cool thing was the first thing they built in the whole project was the public pavilion, where the community could gather. They used it as a stepping off point and office for the construction of the project. For the duration of the project, the residents have been coming every other Saturday to assist in the construction. Before that, they worked closely with the architects during the design process.

The whole process is fascinating and the idea of it is really engaging. It is truly a process supported by architecture to challenge the traditional modes of production that have often created the problems that many people are faced with. And while they have a great deal of decision making power, they still don’t have money and are dependent on it coming from the state.
Unfortunately, political squabbles, budget issues, etc. leave such groups very vulnerable to delays. Mad delays. This project had been going on for 5 years, and it still wasn’t finished. But, the people I met were just as spirited, optimistic and hopeful to see the day where it would be theirs. In the face of all the challenges and setback, it is extraordinary to see the grace and strength by which such average people fight just to live a basic life they all believe in .
The whole neighborhood offered interesting context. In addition to the mutiraos and state building housing, there was also a state financed project, almost like a sites and service project. My guide described it as an “embryonic” house. They state provided a minimal part of the house and the land (two or so rooms) and the people were left to finish it on its own. I actually found the urban condition quite wonderful with the variety that people had finished off their houses. My guide was critical of it, saying the original buildings were too small and minimal.

Finally, there were favelas all around, completely self built and designed. I wandered through them, watching all the engaging activity and marveling at the textures, but also the growth and aspirations they represented.
Yet, favelas are often precarious and face the threat of destruction. I wandered upon freshly demolished houses. While I was taking pictures, a man named Salvador came up and wanted to know who I was and why I was taking pictures. With charades and a bit of Spanish, he opened up and told me he used to live there, pointing to a pile of rubble nearby. He said,” My heart feels heavy coming through here. It is like a cemetery.” He works for the City of Sao Paulo. But, the police recently demolished about twenty houses in this area. I asked my friend about it, and she said that since they had been there longer than 5 years (they had been there 8 years), they were legally entitled to the land. And so it goes……