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The Architecture of the Favelas – In the Labyrinth of Stairs and Alleys

March 29, 2021
Favela Rocinha in Rio

Anyone who studies the social circumstances and social developments in Brazil before a Brazil trip quickly comes across the favelas, the residential districts of the poor population groups in the big cities. The term favela is generally associated with chaotic slums, drug use, and high crime rates. But informal residential neighborhoods are changing, providing space for cultural events and new concepts for urban development, and are increasingly being discovered by tourism and artists. Some are even becoming the new trendy neighborhoods of the city. The architecture and construction methods of the favelas serve as a source of inspiration for urbanists and city planners worldwide.
Brazil travelers usually see some of the notorious slums upon arrival on the way from the airport. However, one's gaze should not only be shaped by the negative headlines but also see the great potential that these melting pots of Brazilian culture and social and urban development hold for Brazil's future.

Chaos with structure – A sea of roofs, paths, stairs

The seemingly wildly mixed houses, connected by small alleys, winding staircases, crossings, and roof terraces, provide new perspectives on urban development from an architectural and urban point of view. The favelas of the working-class neighborhoods near the city centers are predicted to have a hopeful future due to their location, beautiful views, existing nature in the middle of the city, and decreasing crime. While the steep slopes used to be unattractive places to live, today even the upper class, rich foreigners and artists are drawn to the pacified favelas near Copacabana. Besides, one finds an entire city in miniature. There are schools, health centers, stores, hairdressers, craftsmen, restaurants, bars, and bakeries.

They are built without planning and adapt to the living conditions and needs of their inhabitants. At the same time, many of these informal neighborhoods are quite well organized, with their local government and civic associations. The houses are specially designed and built by their inhabitants, most of whom work on the city's official construction sites themselves. Within the favelas, there are separate construction specialists who oversee the building sites. Thus, each family, or even each favela, has its unique construction method and architecture. The residents exchange ideas among themselves, learn from successes and mistakes, which can be fatal when houses fall and thus develop a community knowledge far away from the universities.

The construction methods and architecture of the favelas also have a trend-setting ecological aspect. For the houses themselves, leftover building materials, windows and doors from demolished houses, and discarded everyday objects are used in often very creative ways. The steel and concrete frameworks are very strong and durable. Some already outlast some houses since the 1950s, because the construction of houses is a long dynamic process without a fixed end, which takes place over a few generations. The walls are often filled with the first available material. In the process, a mosaic of plastic sheets, ceiling coverings, or wooden boards is created, which is then replaced with bricks and solid windows only later, when new financial resources are available. During the process, additions are made, new steel frames are erected, and old walls are torn down, the material of which is in turn repurposed. The houses are a mix of steel, concrete, adobe, brick, cement, natural stone, wood, tile, metal, and plastic.

Within the favelas, this creates a distinct construction method and architecture with features such as inhomogeneous tiles on floors and walls, the use of a wide variety of new and old materials, and a rustic, colorful appearance.

Favelas grow around Brazil's cities

It wasn't until the early 1990s, when more than 40 percent of Rio de Janeiro's population already lived in favelas, that urbanization of the neighborhoods, known in Portuguese as bairro, began with the help of international funding. In 1994, the pilot project ''Favela-Bairro'' started with great success and approval within the population, which was later transferred to other cities.

Among the main tasks of the ''Favela-Bairro Urbanization Program'' is the installation of the basic infrastructure of a residential neighborhood. This includes water and electricity supply, sewerage, stabilization of slopes and reforestation, waste disposal, and the installation of community facilities such as schools, health centers, and the like, and the regularization of land. This process is far from complete, as favelas continue to spread in and around cities, and every little spot is built on.

Many of the favelas today are seamlessly bordered, wall to wall, by the wealthiest neighborhoods in the city. Examples include the favelas of Babilonia in Leme, Cantagalo in Ipanema, and Vidigal at the end of Leblon in Rio de Janeiro. Here, the differences between rich and poor are unmistakable, and worlds and different realities of life collide.

Favelas – The New Old Towns and Artist Neighborhoods of Tomorrow

Formerly space-saving and cramped quarters of the inner cities are now globally flourishing tourist centers, trendy and artists' districts. Examples of such development are numerous in the world's famous metropolises, such as Montmartre in Paris and SoHo in New York. These neighborhoods were also once characterized by crime, disastrous hygienic conditions, and extreme poverty.

Brazil travelers should have this development in mind when seeing the favelas or walking through the car-free winding streets. The cheap housing close to the city center accommodates not only low-paid workers and day laborers but also artists, students, migrants, and newcomers. The dense coexistence, liveliness, and abundance of small stores and residential buildings remind many visitors of medieval towns that are now protected historic monuments.

With growing infrastructure, security, cleanliness, and offerings for tourists, the favelas have all the prerequisites to become the tourist centers and picturesque old towns of the future.
For some years now, even film, literature, and music festivals have discovered the favelas as venues. The prerequisite for this is, of course, public safety, which can only be provided if the residents of the favela benefit directly from the events and support them.
Examples of such a success story are the art and culture festivals ''Favela em Casa'' and ''Favela Sounds'' in São Paulo or the book festival ''FLUPP'' in Babilonia and Vidigal in Rio de Janeiro.

Favela tours – Unworthy zoo visit or a chance for sustainable tourism?

A visit to a favela is probably on the wish list of only a few people on a vacation to Brazil. But after international film successes of for example City of God, Tropa de Elite, and music videos of Michael Jackson or Pharrell Williams, a visit to a favela became popular, especially among backpackers and artists.

Meanwhile, there are countless offers in Rio de Janeiro to visit the neighborhoods on an excursion and the term favela tour is already part of the local tourism. But these tours have to be viewed critically because apart from the safety aspect, there are also moral and social concerns when tourists are driven through the favelas like on an adventure tour or social safari to take pictures.

However, there are also examples of successful concepts of sustainable tourism that target the culture of the inhabitants, the community, and its characteristics. These include a visit to Babilonia, a pacified favela on the slopes of Morro do Leme right in the center of Rio de Janeiro, just a few minutes walk from the beach, and with gorgeous views over Copacabana all the way up to the Statue of Christ. Local guides, who themselves live with their families in Babilonia, give insight into the real-life of the people and visitors can visit a school project and a reforestation project. The proceeds go directly to the community and thus help the sustainable development of tourism within the favela. In addition, since small inns, bars, and restaurants have now been opened by residents, local jobs are created and a way for people to interact with visitors to their town. The winding maze of alleys and stairways and the interlocking houses, most of which were built entirely without engineers on the steep slope, are impressive examples of creativity, efficiency, and architectural solutions born out of necessity.

Visiting a favela, or in the case of Babilonia better said a comunidade, English community, is an extraordinary experience that can complete the picture of Brazilian society during a Brazil vacation.

Sources: www.archplus.net/de/archiv/ausgabe/190/#article-2926, www.failedarchitecture.com/learning-from-brazils-architect-of-the-poor,
Verena Andreatta: Favela-Bairro, un nuevo paradigma de urbanización para asentamientos informales,
Marc Angélil and Rainer Hehl: Building Brazil! 2011.

Source: Aventura do Brasil