Urban Explorer - Transforming Rio: New Urbanization Projects in the Most Unlikely Places
by Noah Lewkowitz






If you are looking for gorgeous beaches, beautiful people and a nightlife that never ends, there are few destinations more suitable than Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The Marvelous City offers all of this and more, yet there is a side to Rio many visitors never see. Scattered throughout Brazil are the favelas, poor ghettos riddled with crime, drugs and poor sanitation. While most people avoid favelas, Argentinian-born architect Jorge Mario Jauregui devotes his practice to organizing, rehabilitating and community-building in these impoverished areas.

The first favelas built on the scenic hillsides of Rio are nearly 100 years old. There are over 600 of these districts. Families reside in the cramped quarters of tiny shacks with no plumbing. One in five Rio residents live in the ghetto and are deemed lower-class citizens of the state. Further complicating the situation, most favelas are under the control of drug traffickers. These armed soldados, usually between eight and seventeen years old, guard the ghetto entrances. Violence makes upgrading these districts extremely difficult.

Fortunately, residents of these favelados are finding hope in new urbanization projects from Jauregui. Not only is Jauregui winning favor with Rio locals, but his efforts have even been noticed in the United States. In 2001, he received the Veronica Rudge Green Prize from Harvard University for his work on the “favela-barrio” project, a collaborative initiative to transform these poor districts into modern communities.

Jauregui’s designs contain a quality of innovation and simplicity critical for the development of the area. Money for such projects is scarce, so efficiency is important. For some, this would present a roadblock, yet Jauregui embraces this challenge, making modern forms from meager materials. For instance, in Vidigal, a once desolate area is transformed into a public square with flowing walls and stairs seeming to echo the dramatic, undulating coastlines of Rio. The form is not only beautiful, it reminds favelados that they, too, are a part of the city. Instead of leaving this area desolate and dirty, it is now a thriving symbol of hope for the city.

In Fuba Campinho, a new school was needed. Located on a difficult sloping site, the building embraces simple reddish-orange brick material used in construction in many favelas. The material sweeps across the lower part of the building, using curvilinear rather than orthogonal forms, distinguishing it from the surroundings. These broad gestures are docile and inviting, a pleasant change from the existing decaying dwellings.

Extruded window boxes, turned on an angle, watch over the street as if the building itself is concerned with public well-being. This simple move connects the structure to the community, evidence of the sympathetic understanding Jauregui brings to each favela project.

In a recent proposal for the Cidade de Deus or “City of God” (made famous by the movie of the same name) Jauregui demonstrates the connection between community space and architecture in an urban housing scheme. Instead of simply placing houses on either side of a constricted street, the space between homes is transformed into park area. The wide, shared communal areas encourage social gathering and leisure activities in a close-knit neighborhood setting. This contrasts starkly with the stacked, dilapidated housing and unfriendly, narrow streets that are more commonplace in the city. A similar scenario in a commercial context is in the favela of Manguinhos, where a central park area is inserted between major traffic routes through the district.

Jauregui’s buildings in these sites display bright colors, distinguishing his interventions as progressive landmarks for a better future. In his project in Vidigal, the walls are purple, accented with green stairs, reminiscent of evening colors found when gazing at the mountainous landscape that pervades Rio and the numerous favelas that reside in the hillsides.

In his kindergarten building in Fuba Campinho, the bright yellow color adds to the welcoming nature of the entire structure. The radiant shade represents a progressive modernity rising out of the cold, unkempt streets—a symbol that people can overcome social, economic and political difficulties connected with favela living. The bright contrasting colors associated with the new projects in Cidade de Deus and Manguinhos express the dynamic Brazilian culture. It is through such methods—relating architecture to culture and context—that gives Jauregui’s work a tangible relationship to the people it serves.

Jorge Mario Jauregui’s work is more than architecture. It seeks not only to create beautiful objects, but to develop a new ideology. When asked about his work, he replied, “The favelados live in an absolutely precarious situation. Any proposal for an improvement of their living conditions, to give them a small place, is better than the present situation, and is welcome. But the most important question is to go further than to introduce an infrastructure, ways and services. All this is necessary, but the most important thing is to configure with all these elements a new ‘aura’ of place.”
What separates Jauregui’s architecture from others is more than art, it is culture; the goal is not a building, but the promise of an improved way of life. For many residents of Rio it’s an overdue, yet desired, change.