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Dwellings for the Global City: A Trip Through Rio’s Favelas

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Dwellings for the Global City: A Trip Through Rio’s Favelas

By Carissa Lim and Emily Siegel. 

Tightly crammed in a rickety funicular, we slowly climbed up one of the mountainsides of Rio de Janeiro, occasionally jolting to a stop. Our minds raced as we approached the mountain’s peak, where we would enter the infamous Favela Santa Marta. We stepped onto a concrete platform that overlooked the city, which was engulfed by the surrounding favelas. As we meandered through the winding paths — which were actually stairs because the hill was so steep — we saw walls made from cardboard and roofs made from metal scraps. We passed by children playing tag, well-swept barbershops, small cafes in the lower levels of homes, and vibrantly colored street art. On our way out of the favela, we passed by a quote plastered on a wall that left a lasting impression on us:

Os ricos querem a paz para continuarem ricos, nos queremos a paz para continuarmos vivos.

[The rich want peace to continue being rich, we want peace to continue living.]

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Last March, we traveled to Rio de Janeiro for a class at Penn called Cosmopolitan Urbanism. It was taught by John Tresch and Daniel Barber, and funded by the Mellon Foundation’s H+U+D (Humanities + Urbanism + Design) Program. As a class of twelve, we went to study the intersection of modern architecture and the history of science. For our personal project, we went to study urban housing in an area that experiences extreme overpopulation and major income inequality.

Favela Santa Marta is a shantytown in Rio de Janeiro, built up the mountainside of the city. Favelas materialize in an accumulation of stacked houses, with remaining land left as walkways. Homes are built by the residents, with new generations adding to and improving them. Most residents are very poor and live in homes that are structurally unstable, particularly because they are built out of subpar materials like cardboard and scraps of wood on ground that is subject to landslides and flooding.

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As Rio de Janeiro has grown into a global city to host the World Cup and the upcoming Summer Olympic Games, its government has invested in the city’s “global image.” This investment includes improving the many slums amidst and outside of the city, in which, in some cases, drug crime is rampant. With a new influx of tourists, many people fear for their safety in a city surrounded by slums. Most government efforts have been in the form of forcefully moving residents from favelas to government-funded apartment complexes. These buildings are often far away from the favelas and feature homes that are smaller and impersonal. Understandably, these efforts have been met with resistance, as residents are unsatisfied with their new homes. As we learned more about the government’s efforts to gentrify the favelas, we became suspicious that its priorities did not have the favelados’ needs in mind.

While there are clear disadvantages to living in one of these poverty-ridden communities, we were more struck by the many positive characteristics of Santa Marta. We became fascinated with understanding how these characteristics came to be. In our research, we found that the favela’s strong sense of community was what made it really come to life. Ironically, the aspects of the favela that are often portrayed in a negative light by outsiders are the very same ones that are cherished by insiders:

The disorganized layout makes navigating difficult for non-residents and police but also creates a stronger sense of belonging within the favela; the non-regulated building techniques may seem unsafe, but they also allow families to build customized homes and expand them as needed; the houses may seem uncomfortably close together, but they allow residents to share their lives with one another.

These things are what set the favela housing apart from the modern apartment building. While they serve similar purposes — namely, to house large quantities of people — they function very differently. And this isn’t necessarily such a bad thing.

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In Santa Marta, we found a great opportunity for design to solve a social problem. We realized that the town, albeit impoverished and structurally unsafe, has a thriving community with a rich culture that exists because of the way the town was built over time. We designed a set of inexpensive and customizable interchangeable parts, which could provide a solution that is affordable for the government and flexible for the residents. This design could improve the lives of the residents by providing more structurally stable homes, while preserving the positive characteristics of the favela that residents are reluctant to forgo. If you are interested in learning more about our project, “Reimagining the Favela,” you can read about it here.

Before our trip, we were warned by many people about the dangers of going to the slums in Rio. Despite such warnings, we found that our trip to the favela was just as important as our trips to the breathtaking Copacabana Beach, the unprecedented modernist buildings, and the iconic statue of Christ the Redeemer. Our experience at Santa Marta was the most enlightening and rewarding part of our trip. One of the most important things we took away from it was an understanding of how people find happiness in a sense of home, and that this is possible even in a poverty-ridden area. We were surprised to learn that the favelados fully embraced their living conditions, and sought to improve them rather than abandon them. Through our research, we also discovered a powerful way for design to uplift a community. While acting as a liaison between the economically- and politically-driven government and the culturally-driven residents, designers can help empower these communities to achieve the goals they seek. In turn, these local improvements can ultimately benefit the city as a whole. We left with a new sense of appreciation of the different ways people can find personal fulfillment in different places around the world. 

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Carissa Lim and Emily Siegel are seniors studying architecture and co-presidents of Global Architecture Brigades. Outside of the architecture studio, Carissa is a varsity gymnast, and Emily is a cellist. Together, they have traveled the world, landing in Barcelona, Rio de Janeiro, and Honduras.

Edited by Mariah Macias.