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

Words by Fernando Serapião | 20 May, 2014

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.

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).

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.

For the past 25 years—and now without the participation of Ferreira dos Santos, who died in 1989—favela upgrading has been a feature of Brazilian urban planning. Two actions in major Brazilian cities have been instrumental in advancing this process. In both cases, they adopted the model of land tenure regularisation and public infrastructure (advocated by Ferreira dos Santos). The first action, called Favela-Bairro (slum to neighbourhood), took place in Rio de Janeiro between 1994 and 2008, with the leadership of architects Luiz Paulo Conde and Sérgio Magalhães. The goal was to connect the formal and informal cities. The second action is more recent and took place in São Paulo in the last decade, largely under the leadership of the architect and urban planner Elisabete França.

São Paulo is the largest city in Brazil and has about 380 000 families living in favelas, about 13.7% of its population. Unlike Rio de Janeiro, where the best-known favelas occupy hillsides in prime neighbourhoods of the city, in São Paulo the plots occupied by these communities are nearly invisible to the wealthy and tourists alike. They occupy hillsides and floodplains on the city perimeter. A huge fringe, tens of kilometres long, these settlements are defined by their homogeneity: they form a perimeter of plaster and flat slab constructions settled between valleys and hillocks. If the first impression is one of poverty, the numbers show that most of the inhabitants on the outskirts of São Paulo have land titles and infrastructure.

São Paulo has about 1643 favela communities of various sizes, ranging from those with a few families to those as populous as small cities, with tens of thousands of inhabitants. Knowing the numbers and mapping out the problem was the first step in Elisabete França’s management as director of SEHAB (Secretaria Municipal de Habitação), the housing department in the municipality. This data was then translated into a digital platform. Using a weighting system—sanitation, for example, is considered more important than asphalt—actions were prioritised.

Heliópolis and Paraisópolis are the two largest favelas in São Paulo and have both benefitted from large-scale urban interventions instituted by the city municipality. Aside from their colossal scale—each has more than 60 000 residents—they are both older than other favelas and stand out for their proximity to downtown. Heliópolis is located in the southwestern region of the city, less than 15km from downtown, and consists of old mixed-used neighbourhoods that blend retail, middle-class residences and industrial warehouses. The favela is closer to the ABC Region, an area made up of eight industrialized cities in Greater São Paulo, than to the centre of city. Established in the second half of the 20th century, after the installation of car manufacturers in the 1950s, the ABC Region was the birthplace of the labour movement in the 1970s and generated political leaders of national expression, including former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, a former president of the Steel Workers’ Union.

Heliópolis grew in the vicinity of a Shell oil refinery (now closed) and a General Motors plant. The plot was purchased by an industrial workers’ insurance fund for a proposed housing project before the favela’s existence. The plan did not gain life and the institute used part of the farmland to build a hospital in the early 1970s. One version has it that Heliópolis came about when people occupied a set of sheds inhabited by masons during the hospital’s construction. Another version links its existence to the removal four decades earlier of 150 families from Vergueiro favela, located about 3km from Heliópolis and later transformed into a middle-class neighbourhood: the eviction prompted the construction of wooden shacks on land in present-day Heliópolis.

Paraisópolis is 20 years older and is located 15km south of central São Paulo. Like many other favelas surrounding the formal city it emerged as a subdivision created in the 1920s. During this period São Paulo acquired its polarised character, which it has retained to this day: a dense, vertical central city is surrounded on its periphery by horizontal sprawl that has been expanded by clandestine roads lacking public infrastructure. As with most of the subdivisions on the periphery, the layout of Paraisópolis was disastrous. Its main feature has been a grid of narrow, often steep streets with 100 x 200 metre blocks that defied the topography. Some of the lots were sold, but buyers did not occupy them. In the 1950s, when the area was still mainly rural, the first irregular shacks went up. It is possible that the land invaders were not evicted because of the amount of owners who did not know each other or rarely visited the site. Within two decades the population grew to about 20 000. Unlike in Heliópolis, which is in the city’s industrial zone, the chief reason for the establishment of Paraisópolis was its proximity to the construction market and upper-class residential enclaves, which created domestic labour opportunities.

Over the past 20 years, Brazil’s economic stability has transformed the morphology of both Heliópolis and Paraisópolis, along with many other favelas in the country: residents have replaced their wooden shacks with asbestos roofed brick houses. What was temporary, which looked more like a temporary encampment, has been transformed into something permanent. The internal distribution of the houses has few relations with the traditional home of the country. The Brazilian house, from its origins as the headquarters of a slave state property, still animates the dilemma between family environments (social and intimate sectors) and employee areas (service sector). This is even reflected in middle-class apartments, which have separate entrances and elevators. Fortunately, this situation has been changing, but its effect is still noticeable. For researchers like Carlos AC Lemos, some Brazilian domestic environments, such as the copa—a casual dining spot located between the dining room and kitchen—have served to mediate the interaction between family and employees, being a somewhat free territory.

Favela dwellings have no domestic employees and there is no need for mediation. In general, the dwellers have their meals at the kitchen table and privacy (an obsession amongst Brazil’s moneyed classes) is almost absent in the shack settlements: parents, children and other family members often sleep in the same room. Favela houses rarely have balconies, another typical element of the formal Brazilian home. The balcony is an open space used as a communal area by the family, since the living room is formal and typically reserved for visitors. As a substitute for the balcony, many favela dwellings have a peculiar element: a flat roof “slab” that is used as a recreational space on weekends, for example to host barbecues. The slab is also used as a service area and it also integrates the dreams of families: it represents the future, a space waiting for the further expansion of the home with additional new floors—there are houses with up to four or five floors. The extensions might be used to house married offspring or host tenants, a source of extra income for families.

It is not uncommon to see children playing in the alleys outside homes in favelas and adults using the community soccer fields. Unlike the formal city, the community lives and socialises more intensely in public areas, especially streets, in a manner typical of the atmosphere of hinterland towns. According to Brazilian anthropologist Roberto DaMatta, the street is a public space that belongs to everyone, but, at the same time, belongs to nobody, since authorities constantly monitor it; the house, in turn, is where this authority is fulfilled, established by the family or employer hierarchy. Community leaders, rather than the police or private security, establish order in the common areas of local communities. They are the ones who represent the various local stakeholders—individual and collective, drug traffickers and government—taking the lead in dialogues over favela upgrading, for example. This is another contrast between the formal and informal cities: there is little expression of community mobilisation in formal neighbourhoods.

The morphology of public space also differs in the favela. By its very nature, the winding form of the alleys of these irregular settlements contrasts with the formal city. The grid design of central São Paulo reflects a profited-orientated and market-driven design, where the organic passages of the favela demonstrate adaptation to nature and use of every available inch for a new dwelling (the only sacred place where no one dares to settle is the soccer field). The lack of respect for the rule of law means that even dangerous areas are occupied, such as steep hillsides or riverbanks. The effect is an above-average density when compared to the formal neighbourhoods of São Paulo. Paraisópolis, for instance, has about 606 inhabitants per ha and Heliópolis 401, as against the 145 of Jardim Paulista or 267 of Bela Vista, two populous neighbourhoods in the centre.

Notwithstanding their congestion, no one can deny the spatial richness of a favela, whose organic trace seems to result from spontaneous generation: the walkways, filled with surprises, defy sameness. While the organic form of favelas does present difficulties, especially of access for services such as garbage collection, ambulances and police, it is also positive in the sense that it is permissible to use “private” slabs to approach distant homes in hard-to-access areas or located in the middle of the block. Another common reality in the favelas is the diversified usage of space, primarily in the commercial streets: the ground floor is often adapted for retailing. This improves the dynamics of the favela, produces income, and minimises expensive travel between workplace and home.

Another consequence of Brazil’s recent economic stability is wider access to finance: credit has filled the interiors of favela homes with consumer goods—from flat-screen TVs and dishwashers to cars, the latter intensifying the character of life in chaotic Paraisópolis. The community, which has no monorail or railway network, is only accessible by bus. On the streets of Paraisópolis, the city’s traffic laws are a fiction—because of their commercial value, street signs are also commonly stolen. By comparison, Heliópolis has subway, train, bus and Bus Rapid Transit transport systems, although this has not diminished the desire among residents to own a car.

Before França and her team began their urban upgrades in São Paulo’s favelas, the only signs of public infrastructure were bus lines, along with schools, health centres and standardised apartment buildings. França increased the annual budget of the Housing Department 12 times in eight years, while municipal tax revenues grew 2.5 times over the same period. At this rate, she estimated, the municipality would take 15 years to assist all communities. The funds, complementing the municipal treasury resources, came from agreements with federal and state governments (each, accounting for 20% of the total) and indirect resources such as municipal sanitation and urban operations funds (a legal instrument which allows for higher Federal Acquisition Regulations in exchange for private resources allocated to urban development and social housing).

In Heliópolis and Paraisópolis, as in other favelas in São Paulo, the government has limited the construction of new housing units to residents facing resettlement, for example, because they live in geotechnical risk areas, on steep slopes or near a riverbank. In such cases, those who are in danger benefit from the social rent resources until the new unit is ready, preferably in the same community or surroundings. One of the biggest hurdles of the operation is the lack of land for new constructions, which are financed by residents, although highly subsidised. Abandoning the standard designs, SEHAB commissioned projects from more than 80 architectural offices, many of which are well-known names in São Paulo, such as Brasil Arquitetura, Andrade Morettin and Marcos Acayaba.

The contrast between the new housing blocks, which are the most visible governmental actions in their setting, creates some paradoxes of the connection between formal and informal cities. One of them is the clash between modern and contemporary urbanism, or between Reidy and Ferreira dos Santos, whose legacy still affects the hearts and minds of many urban planning experts. A considerable number of architects designing social housing still use the modernist model and have Reidy’s Pedregulho as a reference. Heirs of an architectural school with deep roots, Brazilian designers still believe in the ideals of linear blocks and it is difficult for them to dialogue with precariousness. Edson Elito, the architect of a large housing project built in Paraisópolis, does not agree with mimicking his design to the surroundings. For him—and many of his colleagues—shack settlements are a picture of misery and there is no reason to dialogue with them. A question remains: If one cannot consider the many positive aspects present in spatiality and materiality of the favela, like the organic environment, fluidity of common circulations and mix of uses, how can one not get inebriated by the collective life in their public spaces? And speaking of the internal morphology of the favela houses, why don’t the new social housing typologies allow for flexible spaces like the slabs? “The São Paulo architect is still very modern,” says Elisabete França.

In defence of São Paulo’s architects, land scarcity requires that new constructions be concentrated, with up to nine floors. Elito’s housing project in Paraisópolis, for example, which received 954 families, has a higher density than the favela generally: 800 inhabitants per ha (where Pedregulho housed 470 inhabitants per ha). Can density reach these levels without modernism as model?

Most of the new projects in São Paulo’s favelas are still surrounded by shack settlements, composing a scene that, if viewed with a modern bias, is an affront. Faced with this dilemma, in which the newly inserted social housing block does not accept the favela as a neighbour, São Paulo architects, led by Héctor Vigliecca, have begun to explore another line of reasoning. Vigliecca, an Uruguayan architect born and educated in Montevideo, is the result of the postmodern debate that reassessed the virtues of the traditional city. His apartment blocks are set parallel to the sidewalk to help shape the city morphology. One of his most recent projects is in Heliópolis. This delicate operation, which involved an old and amorphous housing project, saw the architect restructure the block and, wherever possible, implement elements as mixed use and public passages in the middle of the block. When I visited the project a few months after its inauguration, the passages were fenced. An architect from the municipality who accompanied me explained that after the projects are delivered, residents had the right to do whatever they wanted. Vigliecca is aware of what happened and avoids visiting the project.

Whether in Paraisópolis or Heliópolis, the shock caused by the new projects is large enough to affect the minds of the community. As part of the legal process of taking occupation, the city transfers ownership of the condominiums to residents, who organise themselves as a middle-class building. By paying for the property, they acquire a sense of ownership—and a sense of entitlement at odds with favela customs. Residents of the new buildings do not permit other members of the surrounding favela community to use recreational areas. This is a reason for the fences. Another effect of the connection paradox: the social exclusion typical of the formal city has become a feature of the favela, which once used to offer lessons in solidarity and use of public space to São Paulo.

The São Paulo municipality invited foreign architects to collaborate in the upgrades. The Swiss Christian Kerez, who is used to designing delicate museums in Europe, worked in collaboration with the Portuguese architect Hugo Mesquita and spent weeks immersed in the favela as a shadow of a community leader. In this dialogue, they sought to understand the spatiality of the place and how its population lives. As a result, the project mimics the landscape. It is hard to know whether the design, which was planned alley by alley, would have a positive outcome since it hasn’t been built. Still, the design does raise the question of whether contractors involved in such projects have the sensitivity to implement Kerez’s attentive design? For some São Paulo architects, this project by Kerez, and other similar ones by foreign practices emphasising the spatiality of the community, has an alien look. They are seen as almost folkloric visions that idealise the favela as something desirable.

In early 2013, after the election victory of the Workers’ Party (Partido dos Trabalhadores, PT), Elisabete França’s team was demobilised. Since then, projects have been spinning, seeking to use credits from the federal government’s housing programme, called Minha Casa, Minha Vida (My House, My Life). If 30 years ago the housing movements were part of the PT party base, after Lula’s presidency (2003-11) they are out of step with federal housing policy. França’s management was criticised by political parties and the government dismissed them: they were too radical for Lula’s neoliberalism. The former president has handed over control of the Ministry of Cities to leftist parties and their federal programme for social housing is based on lines of credit that transfer the solution to the private sector. The Minha Casa, Minha Vida programme has prioritised the amount of new units, in general, on the outskirts, and is not focussed on favela upgrading.

More than a state housing policy, the government programme has helped create a new real estate product (small houses and apartments) for a new market (the so-called emerging C class). Without qualifying the location, the construction techniques or even the urban and architectural quality of the projects, the current federal programme is funding misguided projects that further swell the periphery. In Paraisópolis and Heliópolis, the interruption of the slum-upgrading programme has put off finding a solution to the problem of social housing, leaving the paradox of the connection between formal and informal cities up in the air.

Fernando Serapião is a journalist and writer based in São Paulo. Author of Sao Paulo: A Guide to Contemporary Architecture (2005), he is the executive editor of Monolito magazine and a member of the Associação Paulista de Críticos de Arte (Paulista Art Critics Association)