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.

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