Architecture Without Architects
Since I was 14 years old, I’ve been fascinated by travel and design. Therefore, when I started to study urban design and planning, I wanted to participate in design projects around the world. I’ve travelled to developing countries like India, Peru, Turkey, China and Brazil — and this is when I first learned about “architecture without architects.”
One example of architecture without architects is a phenomenon that can be observed in many cities around the world: the building of slums. Slums arise when people appropriate a piece of land, and without the funds to pay for a design expert, design and build their own homes and neighborhoods.
In October 2013, I had the opportunity to visit the Brazilian slums (called “favelas”) in a case study for my university. I spent a few weeks visiting several favelas, including Rocinha and Santa Marta, both in Rio de Janeiro. Rocinha is the largest favela in Brazil and home to more than 200,000 people. Santa Marta has a population of 8,000 and is the first pacified favela in Brazil, which has since become a tourist attraction. Both favelas were founded and created by the people of Brazil and function on their own, with shopping districts, housing, parks, grocery stores and their own motorbike-taxi systems.
Spending time in these favelas made me realize that things we consider unattractive or ‘poor’ may become fascinating once we understand their origins and why they were constructed. The beauty and success of architecture without architects, particularly in the favelas, is based on the fact that every built and un-built element has a reason and function. For instance, homes are built to protect the interior from high temperatures. Blocks of concrete allow homes to stay fresh in the hottest time of the year, and windows are located in strategically around the house to provide enough air circulation. Not only that, but the roofs of homes are often utilized — as places to socialize with family and friends, as rooftop gardens, private swimming pools, and even as advertising space for residents’ own personal businesses.
In order to give their homes more character, the resident people (also called “favelados”) often use a mix of rustic blocks and bricks and colorful murals and tiles. Due to the compact architecture, open spaces in favelas are often crowded. Children and adults are constantly playing in every open space and as soon they can, and favelados who can afford it will create their formal football fields in the middle of their neighborhood.
Some of these neighborhoods have become an empty canvas for both local and outside artists, who decorate the facades of the buildings and streets. Art has become a way to beautify the favelas and create an identity for the place and its people. In doing so, it has changed the image of favelas and favelados, giving them a friendlier, more inviting appeal. The colorful art has not only become a representation of Brazilian culture and their vibrant society, but has also lifted the residents’ spirits and pride of where they come from.
Traveling has given me the opportunity to see different modes of living, many times having to adopt the way of life for another culture and community. The favelas in particular remind me that while we as designers want to give to people what we think they need, sometimes the best design comes from the simple ideas of everyday people.