Rebel Architecture

Rocinha: The pedreiro and the master planner

Informal builder Ricardo de Oliviera struggles with the government’s plan for the future of Rio’s Rocinha favela.

Filmmaker: May Abdalla

Ricardo de Olivera is a Brazilian ‘pedreiro’, a real rebel architect. He has built over 100 houses with no formal training while utilising the most basic tools, all within his local community of Rocinha, Brazil’s largest favela, situated right in the centre of Rio de Janeiro.

Working on a variety of projects across the favela, including his own house, Ricardo explains how these simple buildings meet the social and budgetary needs of their clients. But as the city gears up for the World Cup and Olympic Games, life in Rocinha is changing and even Ricardo cannot escape the violence spilling over from the government’s favela ‘pacification’ programme.

Whilst Ricardo struggles to provide a better life for his own family, Brazil’s new profile on the world stage has also led to an influx of urban planners, NGOs and well-meaning architects, all hoping to improve the physical conditions of the favela – and bringing with them the very real threat of gentrification.

Luis Carlos Toledo, the architect behind the master plan for the government’s regeneration of Rocinha, was considered a radical for working on favela urbanisation long before it became fashionable and says living conditions can and must be improved.

However, even he starts to question the benefits of an attention-grabbing cable-car system, whilst thousands of residents are still without access to education or healthcare. The battle for the future of Brazil’s favelas is on.


By May Abdalla

Things are proving difficult. We are a fortnight into the shoot but for the last five days we have not been able to step inside Rocinha, the notorious Rio favela whose architecture is the subject of our film.

Despite the government’s celebration of Rocinha’s complete ‘Pacification’ three years ago, where 3,000 police officers and soldiers moved in to assert power over its lawless areas, shoot-outs have been taking place every morning. Newspapers run front page headlines about daylight drug wars and the military police reinforce their units. Architecture is beginning to seem inconsequential.

“No! Architecture is critical, everywhere you see social problems exacerbated by design problems,” exclaims master planner Luis Carlos Toledo, who has designed over 30 cities in Latin America and whose plan for Rocinha – a labour of love that took almost a decade – brought the regional government’s attention to the favela.

We meet at the Architecture Biennale in Sao Paulo where Toledo is showcasing a redevelopment project for housing in the favela.

“Urbanism can dramatically change people’s lives. If it weren’t for the narrow alleys in the favela, drug criminals wouldn’t be able to play their game of cat and mouse. Design is one way to change how these places work,” he says.

The roads are indeed very narrow. The most densely inhabited area in Latin America, Rocinha, houses over 150,000 people in an area of 0.82 square kilometres. There are no more empty plots in Rocinha – but the expansion continues.

Inches are carved off the spaces between houses, balconies eat up what they can of the sunlight and pretty much everyone is building upwards. On any temperate Sunday afternoon looking out over a hilltop in Rocinha you can pick out half a dozen builders preparing new stairways on their rooftops. Here they say “whenever you are building a ceiling, you are also building a floor”.

When we meet Ricardo, a local pedreiro – or favela architect – he is doing just that. Now in his forties Ricardo has been building houses for over 25 years. Nicknamed the ‘Engineer of Rua 2’, Ricardo’s portfolio ranges from churches to shops to car parks. Although, he tells us proudly, he never needs to draw anything because he can build straight from his head.

The plot of land he inherited (without official deeds) from his grandfather, one of the first settlers of the favela who arrived to occupy the mountain-side almost a century ago, has morphed from housing a wooden shack, to a small house to – if all goes to plan – two six-storey apartment blocks side-by-side, topped with a space observatory. Limitations to space do not seem to worry Ricardo for now.

“I know that Rocinha is too full. It’s like a world in here all knotted together but when someone asks me to build I will build it. If I don’t do it someone less good could do it. Someone who doesn’t ventilate properly and causes people to get sick.”

Since the 90s Rocinha has grown annually by 19 percent. In the face of this perpetual growth Toledo and his pristine CAD drawings held up by the architectural illuminati have a battle on their hands.

But Toledo has a theory as to how Rocinha, the pseudo-city, will reorganise itself in its organic growth over the next 100 years.

“The way people build in Rocinha is a clue to the future of the favela. People are not just trying to fit more people in the same space they are trying to copy the middle class living out of the favelas … there are pools and gardens. People are now proud of their homes. This is the transition between squatter and citizen. The citizen will begin to ask, ‘Where is the infrastructure to my city?’ and then come the changes.”

Optimistic as they seemed Toledo’s words rang true when finally, a week after the guns started ringing out over Rocinha only 100m from the front door of Ricardo, a truce was called and we made our way back to the favela to pick up filming. Ricardo seemed agitated when he met us and hurried us to his house. We presumed he wanted us out of sight of drug lords still hanging around.

“I want to show you what has happened since you were away,” he announced when we got inside. He led us up a staircase to the roof of his home and pointed to a carved pile of rubble and bricks. “I have begun the balcony.”