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Questioning the role of the architect in society

zondag 10 juni 2018
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  • Picture by Paula RAMON. A squatter resident in the city center of São Paulo.

In this subject of Architecture and Activism, because of the discussions, open classes, cases presented I began to question even more the role of the architect within the matter of decent housing and in this text I’ll approach very briefly the contradiction regarding the housing deficit in Brazil and role of squatting in that scenario.

However, just to give you a better sense of scale, I want to quickly talk about Belgium; try to picture the country’s entire population, all 11,3 million Belgians, living in slums - or favelas in portuguese -, that’s the reality in Brazil. Now, let’s add to the equation the population of Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, all put together: that’s how many people we’d need to match the amount of who people live in unsafe conditions my country. That means that a whole range of people live without some sort of basic infrastructure, which classifies as an unsafe condition of living; that includes people without any roof over their heads, people without basic sanitation and those whose houses in areas of risk. Basically, 34,5% of the urban population of my country lives in unsafe conditions.

That’s why being an Architecture and Urbanism bachelor student in Brazil means having to deal housing deficit. It’s no wonder, right? Architects are responsible for a major part in our cities’ development and that means that they’re obliged to know and understand not only the city’s physical structure, but also the social. I mean, how can one design anything in a city without knowing the needs of the people who will use or/and will be affected by that building? Let’s take a look at the Minhocão case for example, addressed during the semester: we have this massive and degrading structure that no one knew what to do with it up until very recently, and the minute it was decided it was going to become a elevated park, before any type of intervention started, developing companies already started building (selling) apartments in closed condominiums for the middle upper class with the tall towers surrounded by tall walls, killing any visual permeability between the inside and the outside. These constructions are an abomination, a crime to the city, really. They allow the people who live in there to be almost completely alienated from the life in the city, they put every possible service in side those walls, services like gyms, dog-walking paths, game rooms and sometimes even daycares.

Now, what I mean is to say that we don’t need those constructions, we don’t need more neoliberal guided interventions in our cities; they’re there simply to bring profit, while we have 7906 million vacant buildings in the country; most are in conditions to be occupied, while some are going through renovations – in São Paulo specially, the amount of vacant building is more then enough to fit everyone who’s in need of a home.

So, that’s where organizations like the MTST (Movement of the workers without land) come in. They mobilize people to bring them closer to having decent housing; and one of the ways of doing so is through squatting. They’re the ones who organize how, when and which buildings’ are to be occupied. As mentioned in class, what they sometimes do to avoid police confrontation’s what’s called popcorn squatting, where they squat a bunch of places at the same time and then the police doesn’t know where to go. However, that does require a lot of people and obviously they have limitations regarding what they can do and cannot do, because of legal and economical limitations.

The bottom line’s architects can no longer be content with the role of the “refined” artist who designing for the highest bidder. We need to also assume our social and political role of the space makers that we are and be able to make interventions that are not only beautiful, but also beneficial to society as a whole. We need to change our ambitions of designing majestic skyscrapers to making a positive impact in our community and keep in mind that as long as housing’s a privilege, squatting will remain a right.


Maria Luíza Fonseca de Carvalho

  • The favela Heliopolis in São Paulo.