Brazilian Popular Architecture (APB)

Rainer-Hehl-APBRainer Hehl is an architect and urban planner. Currently, he directs the Master of Advanced Studies in Urban Design at the ETH, Zürich, where he also runs a theory seminar and lecture series entitled Urban Mutations on the Edge. He studied at the RWTH in Aachen, the University of the Arts in Berlin and the Ecole Speciale d’Architecture in Paris and has worked as a project architect at Diller, Scofidio + Renfro’s studio and the Office for Metropolitan Architecture in New York. In 2009, he curated the exhibition SQUAT at the 4th International Architecture Biennial in Rotterdam, through which he initiated test-site projects in Paraisópolis, one of Sao Paulo’s largest favelas. Rainer Hehl has also organized several symposia, including the opening symposium for the 4th Architecture Biennial Rotterdam, 2009, a round-table at the World Urban Forum in Rio de Janeiro, 2010, and the urbaninform symposium at the AIA Center for Architecture in New York, 2011. In addition to having lectured widely on urban informality, popular architecture, and hybrid urbanities, Hehl co-founded the non-profit organization and online network Most recently, Hehl edited Building Brazil! (Ruby Press, 2011).  Hehl holds a PhD from the ETH, Zürich, on urbanization strategies for informal settlements, focusing on case studies in Rio de Janeiro.

Q: How do you define APB?

RH: We came up with the title Arquitetura Popular Brasileira in reference to MPB. APB is cross-over, it is inclusive as its popularity is not limited on a certain social class or status, and it is dealing with typical activities of Brazilian culture and lifestyle.

In this sense it is meant to define popular architecture in a very wide range, from vernacular and indigenous architecture, over building solutions that we can find in the favelas up to elements from modern and contemporary urban practice.

Q: Why define APB?

RH: It might be pretentious to come up with a catalogue of typical elements from Brazilian culture put together by outsiders. On the other hand we felt that there is a big opportunity when foreign eyes look at a local culture as we can detect elements that are usually overseen by people that are experiencing these elements on a daily basis.

There is another reason we thought it would be important to put all these elements together: it appears that in contemporary building practice, including social housing, these typical elements of Brazilian urban culture are increasingly disappearing for different reasons. Let me give you two examples: Recently it has been forbidden in the context of Rio’s choque de ordem (shock of order) policy to open coconuts with a machete. Probably because they think it’s too dangerous or unhygienic. Maybe it’s just a matter of time until água de coco can only be bought in packages, provided by the beverage industries. Under the pretext of public hygene the culture of the street vendors is gradually suppressed.

There is another phenomenon that tends to erase typical elements of Brazilian street life. As we can usually find these elements in poor neighborhoods and in favelas, the middle- and upper-class want to distinguish their life-style from the popular Brazilian culture aspiring for privatized worlds, condomínos fechados, that you can find nowadays everywhere in the world whether it be in Shanghai, New Delhi or Dubai. This is the life-style the new emerging middle-class in Brazil is looking at.

We wanted to define APB in order to preserve what is specific and rich in Brazilian urban culture.

Q: What about your professional experience led you to do this project and value APB?

RH: I started a research project that led to a doctoral dissertation in 2007 on urbanization strategies for favelas in Rio de Janeiro from the 1960s to present-day. If you examine closely how they emerge and how they evolve, you realize that favelas are not only about a marginalized shadow-world, a parallel system separate from the official city. You realize that they are just another expression of the same system, the same economy and in some cases even the same political actors are involved. The formal and the informal system are strongly related and we cannot separate one from the other. At some point I thought we shouldn’t call these areas favelas anymore, because this term has too many connotations that are not matching the reality anymore – I started to call them bairros populares, where the idea of the APB catalogue was coming from.

Q: What is the APB research project? How did it develop and how has it been carried out? What is your goal with it?

RH: We started the APB research project by collecting different elements during our visits in favelas and other neighborhoods in Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo and Brasilia. Every researcher had a specific topic to look at whether it was dealing with street life, construction technology or typical elements of self-built houses. When compiling the material we were inspired by Christopher Alexander’s book Pattern Language (which came out recently in Brazil under the title Uma Linguagem de Padrões). Christopher Alexander developed this compendium with detailed text explanation for each element. In the end Pattern Language formed a kind of manual for the establishment of local communities and neighborhoods with aspects ranging from cultural practice (as for instance carnaval) up to large-scale schemes for street patterns and traffic organization.

In a similar way our goal was to establish an open catalogue that could help design the city, providing the milieu for collective activities and encounters which are so typical and important in Brazilian culture. At the same time we didn’t just want to document these elements and so started to offer new ones that might also have the potential to be accepted as popular elements of Brazilian culture.

Q: What is your view about the way favela architecture is criticized by Brazilian mainstream society? Why do you think this is the case and why do you disagree with this?

RH: I think this is a problem that is deeply rooted in the social constellation in Brazil where class segregation is so deeply anchored in the collective psychology. Under these conditions favelas are just simply seen as places of misery. This might hopefully change as Brazilian society is realizing that more and more of the lower middle class (classe C) is nowadays living in favelas. Some people move from Copacabana to Rio das Pedras because they find more quality of life there. But the general picture fueled by the glossy advertisements of real estate companies says: if you want to express higher social status you have to stay away from the favela even if its popular compact neighborhoods might be more sustainable, socially and ecologically.

In addition there is another problem. Modernism in architecture was highly promoted in Brazil and there is very little criticism against modernist ideas – the study of favelas has been blended out for a very long time in Brazilian architectural education.

Q: As an architect what do you think is at stake if we dismantle the favelas in favor of vertical public housing units? This is the preference of many developers in Brazil as you know.

RH: The city has to renew itself from time to time in order to be healthy and pleasant and in some cases (in the case of a severe risk) we have to dismantle houses. If we relocate people we have to provide an adequate livelihood for them. Generally we can say that towers are in any case less sustainable in construction and maintenance, so we should anyhow question why we should build towers for housing. In addition the towers do not offer the same kind of social space and opportunities for small scale business and street vending. However the problem is also that these towers of condomínios only offer quality of life if they are built with high standards. The cheap version of the housing models that are meant to represent upper class living is just a failure because the inhabitants are then squeezed into minimum standards (maximum 50m2 for social housing). It’s very interesting to see that in São Paulo where they built the so called ‘Cingapuras,’ social housing for favela dwellers in the 1990s, they now have to start upgrading programs for these towers as they face the same problems of decay as precarious settlements. As John Turner put it: What was meant to be the solution is actually turning out to be a problem.

Q: Some would argue favela architecture is inherently dangerous and precarious. Is it irresponsible to suggest favela architecture be recognized as some sort of model?

RH: First of all I think it’s wrong to come up with general statements about the favela. There are places inside the favela that are very dangerous or precarious and there are others where living conditions are consolidated, where social mobility is possible and the residents can be considered middle-class. After investigating favelas for several years one thing became very clear for me: the so-called informal city is more heterogeneous, more diversified and more complex than the cities we already know. If we state that the favela can be considered an exemplary model for the urban future we have to differentiate and refer to the ‘places of hope’ rather than the ‘places of despair.’

Q: What would you say to someone that says favelas are only transitional? Meaning it is OK initially but ultimately people should be in apartment blocks or formal housing?

RH: The favela is based on incremental development, which means that it is based on the logic of growth. In this sense these areas are constantly transforming, which means they are transitional by nature. If we look at urban history incremental processes have always determined how cities evolve. It is clear for me that favelas have to be formalized whether this means they have to be integrated into the legal system or that they have to be improved and upgraded, and gradually replaced by better structures. How the replacement should happen depends on the situation. It is obviously wrong to propose to erase the favela and to reconstitute the previous buildings with apartment blocks as an overall solution that should be applied everywhere. Again, it’s the generalized solution that prevents the diversity and richness of urban life. The catalogue for Brazilian Popular Architecture also helps to get a more differentiated view on the qualities that make up a better city.

Q: Have you been to informal settlements in different parts of the world? How do you compare Rio’s favelas to other informal settlements in terms of architecture and development?

RH: The same is true for the comparison with other informal settlements in the world. The more we enter the different realities we realize how they are specifically adapted to the local context. Take for example ‘Dharavi,’ one of Mumbai’s largest slums: Most of the residents work inside the area manufacturing goods or working for small scale recycling business. In this case we cannot conceive upgrading measurements without maintaining the micro-businesses that create altogether a turnover, which exceeds the dimensions of a large-scale company.

What is typical about Rio’s central favelas is the fact that they are so close to the official city fabric, offering them huge potential. If Rio can manage having different classes living close to each other in an inclusive way and get over the segregation between favelas and the rest of the city it would offer a perfect basis for a socially sustainable urban growth model – different classes would then realize they actually benefit from each other.

Q: How do you define ‘favela’?

RH: If I had to come up with my own definition after several years of studies I would say the favela is a space of intense social struggle. This social struggle is mainly related to an economic problem – the lack of adequate shelter and the failure of the state to provide enough housing for everybody – and it manifests itself in many different ways: in the form of criminalization and segregation from other areas, but it has also led to a whole set of cultural practices from samba to baile funk. The favela is a place for popular cultural production as well as the ‘borderzone’ where the formal system of the city with its legal framework and security devices meets the informal or illegal or extra-legal logic, a kind of buffer zone that absorbs all the aspects of the neoliberal market economy that doesn’t fit within the official system.

 The favela is therefore also a grey zone, a space where the city can renew itself and where new urbanities, new modes of living and local cultures can be tested.