The author of this article, Marcella Aruda, is a student of architecture at Escola da Cidade, Sao Paulo, Brazil. She participated in a three days workshop organized by URBZ in Paraisopolis. The students are seen interacting with local builder Ataide in the picture above.
What are the most productive and socially relevant roles that the architect and architecture student can play today? I ask this question because as a student of the discipline in Brazil, I feel that the architect’s social function has lost direction a bit. What I want to explore in this short essay is: How can Brazilian architecture colleges best prepare the student to practice his social function?
In the end of the 20th century, Brazil could be considered an urban country: in 2000, the population living in cities exceeded 2/3s of the whole country’s population, reaching 138 million people. This process of urbanization was lead by the cities in the southeast, principally São Paulo, and then started to expand to other regions.
While the medium annual rate of urban growth in 2010 was 1.9%, the São Paulo periphery’s growth rate was above 6% (Whitaker). In 2011 a government report (IBGE) states that 11.4 million people in Brazil live in unstable settlements, or as we refer to them here, in favelas. Also, the same report declared, that 3.2 million of low-income houses are mainly concentrated in the southeast region. That covers 49.8% of all such residences in the country with almost 23.2% of the lot being only in São Paulo.
Reflecting on these numbers it must be reiterated that most of these houses were constructed by people themselves or local pedreiros, (contractors, skilled masons, small builders) without any technical or scientific help of any other professional – just with their know-how, and skills gained through what they learned by doing.
Sketches of local constructions in Paraisopolis by students of Escola da Cidade. More here.
Considering that architects study, project and construct spaces where social relations take place – and that they have the scientific and technical knowledge to do it, it would be very helpful on all counts if they should be part of the process of building in these irregular settlements.
What happens today is that, in Brazil, the majority of architects only work for 10% of the population. That is, most architects’ produce a wide of range of output only for the ones who can pay a significant price for having this ‘privilege’. In such a scenario, as a student of architecture who is also supposed to be socially conscious, how exactly do I see my role?
The need of bringing back the importance of the architect’s role in society is imperative. Along with this it is also important to change the way we see architecture: “not anymore as some individual aesthetic expression, but as an ethical and aesthetic one” (Tomaz Lotufo). The question is: how?
Maybe if we should try and understand why the process of letting go the ‘social concern’ happened in the first place we may get some clues. In the university, the architecture student learns about his role in society, however, it mainly narrows to a theoretical understanding. There is no practical learning.
The acknowledgement of a social role only emerges when awareness grows; and this consciousness only comes alive when we empathize with others in a different context, know how it is to be in another’s place, wh know other realities besides our own. And one can only know another reality if one cohabits and lives with it and establishes a relationship with ‘other’ people, who are part of it.
Supermarket built by pedreiro Ataide in Paraisopolis (previous shot taken from this roof). Escola da Cidade students studied this construction in detail and presented their finding to the pedreiro, the community and the municipality.
Being in touch with social reality is extremely substantial, in that it develops an understanding of a culture – of ways of doing, building, exchanging and also relating to the people themselves as well as to the urban space as a whole. Besides, it generates the practice of collective values, which collaborates to create collective life and social organization.
Thinking it through this way, a socially relevant project can be a way of constructing this relationship and this proximity with this social reality, and starting to signify a way and a means to get to an end. That is: the community, mainly the pedreiros, and architecture students can work together to develop a collaborative achievement, in which the students learn with the local methods of construction, the culture of living and the way of relating in that context while the pedreiro can also get the technical and scientific support he wants. What can be constructed through this is another way of thinking of the irregular settlements such as the favelas: learning what is done in this place, and developing a project that proposes new ways of dealing with this space’s problems and expanding the potential of what works.
Emanating from the pedreiro’s project, the student can give consultancy to the pedreiro, contribute to the project with ideas for an easier way to make the built form, share details of design, exchange ideas of transforming what was meant to be done, harmonize cost and quality, suggest better distribution of rooms, and many other things (but always by remembering that we must not change everything, and strive to keep the language and the essence of what was first provided).
Moreover, this idea of collaboration must involve not only the pedreiro and the student, but also the owner/contractor, the community and, ideally even the authorities. If the project is lead by the pedreiro, who gets the ‘consultancy’ of the student, it can also be constructed by the local labor? This way it would contribute to the local economy and would engage the community, create a sense of belonging necessary to generate the idea of value and also enhance the maintenance of what’s being built.
Furthermore, if the city hall, instead of investing in buildings ‘planted’ in the middle of the favela’s space and contracting a company to construct it, could finance the pedreiros (providing capital for the construction) and this would generate jobs in the community and provide tools for their own development.
Of course, this whole idea of involving the neighborhood, the pedreiros and the students is extremely new in all aspects (and also an innovation in academic environment as well as in the social one). How does one introduce a new way of doing and building in an already established culture? How do we set up the participation of the architect in this already established relation chain?
These are questions we will be able to answer only when we start working. Sometimes the process unfolds when the practice starts. However, what we certainly know is that if there is one particular ingredient in place then the process will be smooth. That ingredient is trust. The collaboration between the architecture student and the pedreiro (as a delegate of the community) is only possible by launching a relationship between both: a social contact, a familiarity, basically by instituting trust.