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What lies beneath

UCL Space Syntax PhD Candidate Fani Kostourou consideres what we may learn from digging deeper into what archtects could call failure, highlighting six qualities of informal paths which she argues are worth integrating in formal planning.

What becomes clearer than ever is that slums constitute an integral counterpart of contemporary cities. Most of the times they are portrayed as inappropriate and chaotic settings lacking of structure and basic infrastructure desperate for drastic solutions. Else, they are opaque urban zones yet “spaces of closeness and creativity”[1]. Instead of clearing, disregarding or re-inventing them, we as architects and planners can investigate more what most people would call ‘failure’. That is to say there is stillroom for learning from what isn’t obvious to the naked eye[2].

Looking at the Brazilian favelas, some hidden qualities are brought into the fore[3]. Qualities that not only reveal a greater virtue of urban informality –that of adaptation to specific conditions–, but also are worth integrating to formal planning. In fact, Eduardo Paes, mayor of Rio de Janeiro, in his TEDTalk speech[4] has claimed that “favelas are not always a problem…can sometimes really be a solution”. Of course, there is a risk of cliché when talking about ‘learning from favelas’[5], that of romanticising. But the pure scope here is more to document the ingenuity involved in the furnishing of this world with a ‘naiveté’ that Georges Perec would approve of. By actually being present and witnessing we can acknowledge an unconscious bottom-up ‘intelligence’[6], the Brazilian ‘ginga’[7] of urban space. Let’s observe for example an informal street/path, one of the five elements of cities[8]. As Perec wrote in 1974[9]: “The street: try to describe the street, what it’s made of, what it’s used for…Detect a rhythm…Decipher a bit of town…The people in the streets: where are they coming from? Where are they going to? Who are they?”

While walking through Cantagalo favela along the hillside of Morro do Pavão in Rio de Janeiro, one sees that the main path may not look like formal streets or one of Jacobs’ great streets[10], however it serves exact same purposes: traffic conduit, infrastructure line, common space for access to private property, place of social and commercial encounter and exchange, public showcase, and political space. Through a complete random aggregation of elements the path managed to embrace at the same time all the functions and speeds taking place in the favela. Even more, we believe it disposes six specific spatial qualities that offer a direct interest for design: direction, conspicuity, walking pattern, conviviality, scale and comfort.

Similar to other informal paths, Cantagalo’s main street is a veritable stage of gathering where inhabitants feel comfortable spending most of their day. It encourages them to appropriate it making it a working counterexample for the planned streets of the Brazilian ‘condomínios fechados’[11] and MCMV[12] settlements. The favela of Cantagalo is by no means perfect, nor is its main street; nonetheless it succeeds in retaining the guilefulness[13] found in the everyday life of ‘favelados’[14]; a guile that creates and transforms possibilities in space.

[1] M. Santos, A natureza do espaço, técnica e tempo, razão e emoção. Hucitec, São Paulo, 1996.

[2] In the architectural discourse, learning from informality is not a novelty but dates back from 1960’s John FC Turner’s writings and it has been constantly growing as a fashion since then.

[3] M. Angélil, R. Hehl, Something Fantastic (eds) Building Brazil: The Proactive Urban Renewal of Informal Settlements, Ruby Press, Berlin, 2011.

[4] In his March 2012 speech The 4 commandments of cities

[5] Favelas, Learning From, Lotus 143, 2010.

[6] M. Bense, Brasilianische Intelligenz, Wiesbaden, Limes, 1965.

[7] Ginga basically means absolute bliss or happiness. The Portuguese word conjures up an almost dance-like way of running. It's swinging your body from one side to the other to deceive. It's the happiness found in Brazilian football players and the Brazilians from the lower classes who are often more generous, happier and more willing to try new things. It is the rthythm of the place.

[8] K. Lynch, The Image of the City, The MIT Press, Cambridge Massachusetts, 1960, pp.47-8.

[9] G. Perec, Species of spaces and other species, Trans. J. Sturrock, Penguin, UK, 1997, p. 50-52.

[10] A. B. Jacobs, Great Streets, MIT Press, Cambridge Massachusetts, 1993.

[11] Gated communities

[12] In 2009, Brazil launched ‘Minha Casa, Minha Vida’ (“My House, My Life”) mass housing programme in order to face a 5.8million housing deficit.

M. Angélil, R. Hehl, Something Fantastic (eds) Minha Casa – Nossa Cidade! Innovating Mass Housing for Social Change in Brazil, Ruby Press, Berlin, 2014.

[13] This is the De Certeau’s notion of guile. M. De Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life. Trans. S. Rendall, U of California Press, Berkeley, 1988.

[14] Favela inhabitants

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