“No other generation of architects has had such an opportunity as the current generation.” Coming from architect Sérgio Magalhães, who chairs the UIA2021RIO Executive Committee, this statement is not exactly upbeat. Instead, he lists a set of challenges to be tackled by professionals eager to upgrade urban quality, believing that the world – and above all Brazil – is at a crucial turning point: “We stand on the verge of choosing between cities that are tools for development with less inequality, or clinging to a backward and exclusionary model that we have pursued for more than forty years.”
Engaged in the discussion cycle exploring the possibilities that lie ahead (Nada Será Como Antes) organised by the Midrash Culture Centre through its YouTube Channel, Sérgio Magalhães said that the COVID-19 pandemic arrived at a time when structures that once seemed solid were proving fragile, thus opening up a gap through which the issue of cities could be shoehorned onto political, economic and social agendas.
“During the past forty years, Brazil has abandoned its cities. We live under the rule of economic and financial policies, talking only about the GDP, foreign exchange rates and the stock exchange. Politics has been swamped by economics. Everything else has become secondary. And even the economy itself has not realised that, if the city is not constantly upgraded, it offers no payback, it does not become a tool for national development. To the contrary, it undermines the country’s potential,” notes this architect, recalling that the world is currently interconnected through cities, particularly major metropolises: “The city is the driving force behind development, the place of expertise and exchanges, it is the intercommunicating tool used by the entire world.”
Providing a background for the current crisis assailing Brazilian towns and cities, Sérgio Magalhães offered a brief historical overview, recalling that Brazil posted the highest demographic growth rates during the mid-XX century, mainly in urban areas. During the subsequent fifty years through to the end of the century, it expanded from twelve million to 175 million urban dwellers.
“In this impressive explosion, cities grew however they could: 80% of homes were built with family savings. Generations of poverty-stricken families threw up shacks that ballooned into favela shantytowns, unlicensed subdivisions and sprawling urban outskirts, after the rail-based transportation system using trains and trams was replaced by wheeled options,” he notes.
According to him, urban expansion outstripped population growth threefold: “cities expanded with low density, lacking public services and social facilities. During this expansion, generally in utter poverty, the State turned a blind eye, while protection rackets and gangs flourished. Today, a significant proportion of Brazilian cities are not shielded by the Constitution.”
As a response to this situation, Sérgio Magalhães underscores the need to integrate areas neglected by the authorities with urban territories subject to the rule of law. He mentions efforts in Rio de Janeiro during the 1990s, when– heading up the Municipal Housing Bureau – he was in charge of implementing the Slum-to-Neighbourhood (Favela-Bairro) urban upgrade programme for squatter settlements in Rio de Janeiro. He also refers to examples in Colombia, where slums were integrated with the rest of the urban fabric in Medellín and Cali.
However, without State action: “Urban territories subject to the rule of law will shrink and become increasingly more expensive,” says this architect, referring to high housing costs in urban areas served by public facilities. “The city is throttling itself,” he says.
“Brazil has expanded from having two million urban homes during the 1950s to more than sixty million in 2010. Today, its population is stable, and may even shrink. But due to the social phenomenon of dwindling family sizes, many more homes are needed for the same number of people,” he notes. His calculations indicate that Brazil will build forty million new homes by the end of the 2030s – more than half its current inventory.
“Will they be built without licences? Without financing? Bloating cities and deepening poverty? Or will we be able to achieve an about-turn and build within the urban fabric, filling gaps, repurposing vacant buildings, upgrading desolate and decaying areas that need revitalisation?”
According to Sérgio Magalhães, a study conducted by the Urban Planning Graduate Studies Programme at the Rio de Janeiro Federal University (UFRJ) shows that the city could absorb half the homes that must be built during the next ten years without expanding its land occupancy. However, in the view of this architect, this requires knowledge: “We cannot allow local legislation to be swayed by discretionary and authoritarian wishes.” And the need for change is pressing: “We cannot wait for the GDP to rise before solving urban problems. The GDP will not rise if cities are decaying.”
The opportunities for a new generation of architects are thus driven by this urgency: “In addition to the forty million homes that will be built, we have 50% of cities to be improved, in terms of urban planning as well as housing. And the new generation of architects is engaged in these upgrades, eager to move into action for poverty-stricken areas, introducing the necessary transformations,” he concludes.
To watch the speech given by Sérgio Magalhães in the Nada Será Como Antes discussion cycle forecasting what lies ahead, access https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Cg59CMNsKAU
Partnership on Paper and Design Works