Rio raises the inner city 'siege'
Behind a turquoise, graffiti-scarred door on the edge of downtown Rio sits a 67-year-old man wearing Bermuda shorts.
Glancing between two computer monitors, he hammers out a plan to save his city.
“It’s not even about ideals,” he says. “I have four children, a load of grandchildren and they live here. All I can do is to try to improve a little bit of the city for those [generations] who are coming.”
Welcome to the practice of Luiz Carlos Toledo, a veteran Brazilian architect and one of hundreds of local town planners battling to create a bold new blueprint for one of the most pressing and perplexing questions in Rio and much of our increasingly urban world—how to transform, develop and integrate sprawling, often crime-ridden slums into cities.
Such issues are nothing new to Rio, one of the world’s most unequal and violent cities, where rich and poor live side by side yet in distinct universes. But they are increasingly urgent, following the latest round of deadly gunfights between police and drug traffickers that culminated in thousands of security forces storming the city’s most notorious shantytown and evicting hundreds of heavily armed gang members. At least 39 people were killed.
With the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics on the horizon, authorities are engaging in two simultaneous battles to improve life in the favelas—implementing “pioneering” pacification schemes in the slums and splashing out billions of dollars remodelling the favelas as part of an urbanisation initiative called Morar Carioca (roughly “Rio Living”).
The selection process, which ends this month, will see 40 architectural practices tasked with redesigning 582 inner-city slums that house about 1,2-million impoverished and excluded Brazilians.
Rio’s mayor, Eduardo Paes, said 19 crèches, five health clinics and one cinema would be constructed in the Complexo do Alemao and the Complexo da Penha slums, the scenes of some of the worst violence.
“This will be the biggest and most extensive intervention in the favelas in Rio’s history,” said Pierre Batista, the city’s undersecretary for housing. “Our goal is to urbanise all of the favelas by 2020.”
For most of the past century slums in the city centre and its beach-side south zone have been bulldozed and their residents dispatched to drab and distant housing estates, such as the City of God, made famous by Fernando Meirelles’s film.
Sergio Magalhaes, the president of Rio’s Architecture Institute, which is co-ordinating Morar Carioca, admits that until the early 1990s most architects had hardly given favelas a thought. Now, he believes, that mentality is changing as planners focus on “integration” rather than removal and some firms start to specialise in, and profit from, such work.
“An architect can no longer believe he has miraculous formulae that he can impose on society. Contemporary urbanism — is about [embracing] all possibilities — and above all the recognition of what already exists and what each community has already managed to build. “Rio holds a very important lesson in urbanism for the world.”
Like Toledo, Magalhaes has spent decades grappling with the Rubik’s Cube of how to integrate marginalised slums with the wider city.
Magalhaes said Brazil’s growing expertise in favela urbanisation and the economic impetus of the Olympics meant it was now “technically possible and economically viable” to give the slums an unprecedented facelift.
“London’s Olympics can be a very important example—the way London is using the Olympics to recover a poor and run-down area. But here the Olympics can be much more relevant — it could [revolutionise] the city,” he said.
In several giant, drug-ridden favelas work has already begun. Walkways, cable cars, roads and swimming pools are springing up in areas such as Rocinha, Manguinhos and the Complexo do Alemao, a gritty sea of redbrick shantytowns recently “conquered” by thousands of security workers following intense shootouts involving helicopters, armoured personnel carriers and tanks.
Future projects, funded by the state and federal governments and international banks, could see light railways erected.
Toledo’s most recent intervention, a radical remodelling of the city’s largest shantytown, Rocinha, even featured a dramatic, curved walkway designed by Brazil’s legendary architect Oscar Niemeyer. Niemeyer, now 102, reportedly handed over his design free of charge.
“I’ve been involved in major projects but I’ve never done such important work as in Rocinha,” said Toledo, who spent a year working out of a temporary practice in the shantytown developing ideas with suggestions from some of its estimated 110 000 residents. “When I urbanise a favela I’m trying to activate that economy, hoping that the area will gain a social and economic dynamic similar to the rest of the city.”
Toledo described his work as an attempt to demolish the “invisible walls” erected around the city’s slums since his childhood, when he roamed freely in the Fogueteiro shanty near his home. Today the dilapidated slum is controlled by rifle-toting members of the Red Command drug faction and is off limits to most outsiders.
“This city was not divided like it is now. There was not this segmentation. Today it is as if they have put invisible walls up around the favelas — Rio de Janeiro today — is a city under siege.”
But, privately, some urban planners wonder if installing cable car networks is an effective use of public money or merely an attractive proposition for contractors. Others fear the favelas will be given a superficial makeover to “beautify” the city for tourists and warn that without major investment in job creation and education schemes urbanisation alone will not be enough.
“We welcome urbanisation, as long as there is community participation and as long as it is not just make-up,” said Jose Martins de Oliveira, a 64-year-old community leader from Rocinha. “Residents must be heard.”
Batista said Morar Carioca could represent the “great social legacy” of the Olympics, with the construction of “clinics, crèches, schools and transport”. “It is a daring plan, but one that we will see through. After this project there will no longer be this barrier between the slums and the city below.”
In his practice, a stone’s throw from the city’s transsexual red-light district, Toledo was putting the finishing touches to his vision for Rio’s future. “I’m an old man,” he sighed. “Today I fight for this—as an architect, a citizen, a father and a grandfather—because without this the city has no solution — If we do not face up to this problem the city will become unsolvable before the Olympics — and for me [the solution] is about habitation.”
He extracted his first million from lawless goldmines deep in the Amazon jungle and went on to become Brazil’s richest man, a smooth-talking mining and energy tycoon who keeps a Mercedes-Benz SLR in his sitting room as a symbol of his £17-billion empire.
Now, with Rio de Janeiro gearing up for the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics, Brazilian entrepreneur Eike Batista has set himself two new goals—to help transform his adoptive beachside home into one of the world’s most dynamic and affluent cities, and to become the richest man on Earth.
Batista’s companies, controlled by a holding group called EBX (the X a reference to multiplying profit) plan to pump nearly £13-billion into Rio state over the next two years, constructing ports and factories and drilling for oil.
‘If I look at Rio 10, 15 years out, it is going to be unbelievable,” he said, describing the city’s future as a mix of California, New York and Houston, combining stunning beaches and natural beauty with financial clout and ultra-modern architecture.
One of the patrons of Rio’s successful Olympic bid—he gave about £9-million to the campaign—Batista has also donated £38-million to help fund a government ‘pacification” scheme which is attempting to rid the city of the armed drug gangs that control many of Rio’s 1000 favelas.
‘Most of [Brazil’s wealthiest] people live 90% of their lives in Brazil [but] they save money to buy something in New York, or in Miami, London, or Paris,” he said. ‘Their children sometimes have to drive in armoured cars. Let’s change this. This is the paradise.”—Guardian News & Media 2010