Rocinha, a neighborhood in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, is one of the largest and densest slums in Latin America. The neighborhood that still struggles with drug cartels, lack of access to education and healthcare, and seemingly inescapable poverty is beginning to slowly change with the visionary architectural work of Ricardo de Olivera, as well as impactful government planning initiatives.

Featured in the series Rebel Architecture, architect Olivera has no formal training. This has given him the adaptable ability to work with the material of the local context of his favela, rather than imposing ineffective westernized techniques. “Ricardo is famous around here. Everyone wants his services,” says a local resident in the film entitled “The pedreiro and the master planner” directed by May Abdalla.

“A foreign architect would not get into this hole and dig. He would hire someone or would hire machines. But here in the favela, we are hands on… Most of the buildings here were built by pedreiros like me… I did all three things. I didn’t need an engineer or an architect or a decorator,” says Olivera in the film.

Olivera has built over 100 houses, as well as supermarkets and parking garages. He is visionary and passionate about improving the quality of life of his birthplace. Olivera’s simple designs meet the needs of his clients and neighbors both socially and financially. Favelas arise spontaneously with no help or design from the government, explains the film. Rocinha is considered Brazil’s most urbanized slum. The tiny 0.8 by 0.8 square mile, steep area is home to 100,000 to 200,000 people. Residents live in states of extreme poverty, in small shanties stacked on top of each other, up to 11 stories high.

Residents of Rocinha rarely have access to education. Citizens on average have had only 4.1 years of formal schooling, and less than one percent of adults have earned a degree above a high school diploma. Jobs in Brazil are reserved for citizens with formal degrees—so Rocinha residents do not have easy access to escaping the impoverished conditions they were born into.

“It has its problems—sanitation, access to quality housing. The other problem is because of the narrow streets where the police can’t go, drug traffickers settled in Rocinha. The government closed its eyes to the arrival of those forming the favelas because they didn’t have the resources to provide housing and they needed cheap manpower. This logic is present in each and every city in which there is a poverty belt,” says Luis Carlos Toledo, the architect behind the master plan for the government’s improvement plan for Rocinha in the film.

As Rio preps itself for the upcoming Olympic games, there are competing forces at play determining the future of Rocinha. The city has implemented pacification programs, which destroy slums in an attempt to make the city look cleaner and less impoverished to outsiders.

The city has also created an ambitious transportation plan— a cable car system that connects downtown Rio with Rocinha. Citizens are against this system, seeing it simply as an investment in the tourism industry rather than a viable transportation solution.

At the same time, various foreign urban planners, NGOs, and architects have come to Rocinha with good intentions, but without a working knowledge of the local community, threatening to bring gentrification to Rocinha.

Amidst these various forces, citizens of Rocinha are speaking up more than ever before. Community meetings in Rosinha have raised a collective voice against the cable car system. “Only the population of Rohica can preserve the spirit. And without that, there is no future for Rohinca,” declares the film.

“The residents have aspirations for the whole favela, not just their house,” explains the film.

Despite the Brazilian government’s mixed history with creating helpful change, localized urban planning by the government has brought improvements to parts of Rocinha. In 2011, an ambitious project to change the district called Rua 4 was successfully implemented. Residents were moved to public housing within their neighborhood, rather than being moved to the outskirts of the city which is often the case in attempts to improve housing.

Before the changes, the Rua 4 area was a 60 centimeter ally, known for having the highest tuberculosis rate in the world.

Dictated by the urban planning project, roads were widened in Rua 4 to about 12 meters. Buildings were improved structurally and painted brightly. Gardens and plazas shot up. Staircases were built to connect different levels. Residents have contributed to building playgrounds, a stage, mosaics and murals.

Here, people relax on their porches outside and no evidence of the drug trade is present. Head architect Luiz Carlos Toledo said “Rua 4 is… an example of how you can, without abandoning the traditional pathways of a favela, improve them, adapt them to the scale and the topography of the site.”

The successful government project and Olivera’s rebel architecture demonstrate that impactful change in favelas is possible. As the community begins to demand more change collectively, hope and greater improvements in Rocinha seem to be in the favela’s future.

Margaret Mary Anderson

Sources: Arch Daily, Al Jazeera, Mundoreal, Rio On Watch
Photo: Flickr

Celebrated architects are mostly known for the great buildings they design in expensive, multi-million dollar projects. Thus, when the Japanese architect Shigeru Ban was honored with the Pritzker Architecture Prize, it was remarkable in that he has largely been known for his innovation in refugee shelters. The refugee work that Ban has done in his home nation of Japan has helped many displaced by the earthquake/tsunami disaster of 2011, as well as refugees in other parts of the world.

The innovation from Ban comes from his use of disposable and recyclable material. The voters of the award said of Ban, “His buildings provide shelter, community centers and spiritual places for those who have suffered tremendous loss and destruction.” In 2011 the famous Christchurch Cathedral was decimated after a New Zealand earthquake. Ban built a temporary devotional structure out of cardboard tubes for those left without their religious sanctuary, giving the community an outlet in their time of difficulty.

Ban first got involved with refugee structures in the wake of the Rwandan genocide in 1994. Ban saw the conditions the refugees were living in, and he said, “I thought we could improve them.” Working with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Ban designed tents using paper tent poles that gave a cheap yet efficient and easily transportable shelter for the refugees. The UNHCR made Ban a consultant after his work in Rwanda.

His work in Kobe, Japan after the 1995 earthquake foreshadowed the work he would do in this decade. Ban designed houses made of cardboard for those displaced and even built a “Paper Church community center.” Some of the structures he made in Kobe were “meant to be used for three years were used for 10.” Ban’s work in these places has not only made a lasting emotional impact, but clearly a physical impact on the landscape as well.

The work that Shigeru Ban has done is exactly the type of innovative refugee work that should be encouraged in dealing with burgeoning international crises. Resources are stretched thin when working at so many different levels at once, and innovative minds like Ban’s can help remedy that strain. The Borgen Project and advocacy groups like it encourage funding for this type of innovative relief work.

The work that Ban has done in Japan since the 2011 disaster has capped off a career of humanitarian work. Ban has built partitions for families living in gyms, making life easier in a difficult situation. He even designed a three-story refugee shelter on the grounds of a baseball stadium. Ban sees the work that he has done in his home country as a necessity that is seen too little among the best of his profession. Ban says, “I was very disappointed in our profession. Because we are mostly working for privileged people, with power and money.”

With this recent award and the $100,000 grant that comes with it, one can hope that Ban is starting a wider trend in the architectural profession.

– Eric Gustafsson

Sources: BBC, New York Times, PBS
Photo: CNN

Cannon House Building 101
The Cannon House Office building is the oldest congressional office building. It is named after Joseph Gurney Cannon who was Speaker of the House of Representatives during the authorization and completion of the building.

Completed in 1908, the Cannon House building provided fresh new space for members of the House of Representatives. Previously, overcrowding was a severe problem in the capital as committees fought over meeting space. Finally, in 1901, the Sundry Civil Appropriation Act authorized plans for a new building near the Capitol to be used as office and storage space.

After the Cannon House Office building’s opening, all US House of Representative members had their own office space for the first time in history. Each representative was given a room 15 feet wide, 23 feet long that contained a desk, chairs, wardrobe and filing cabinets. These modest offices were also supplied with telephones, lavatories, heat and ventilation. The building also contained a barbershop, restaurant and telegraph office.

Architecturally, the Cannon building is characteristic of the Beaux Arts style of architecture.  Covered in limestone and marble, the exterior of the building is similar to the Colonnade du Louvre in Paris. 34 Doric columns line the side of the building facing Independence Avenue while pilasters face the New Jersey Avenue side. The building is built in the shape of a hollow trapezoid. It was designed this way to allow light to reach the inner rooms.  Upon completion, there were 397 and 14 committee rooms offices constructed within to hold each member of the 61st Congress.

The building was immediately used by the 60th congress after it opened in 1908. However, by 1913, the House once again had maxed out on allotted space and more offices were required. Thus, 51 more rooms were added to the structure of the building with the construction of a fifth floor. By 1924, the building was renovated again and an additional building constructed to house the growing number of representatives.

Today the Cannon Building is still being used as office space for current representatives. Since 1908, the Cannon building has been joined by the Longworth and Rayburn buildings on the Representative side of the Capitol.

– Grace Zhao

Sources: House of Representatives Archives, Architect of the Capitol
Photo: Visiting D.C.