Courtesy Urban-Think Tank

Recent flooding opened up new possibilities in the Paraisopolis section of Sao Paolo

In the compact and crowded slums of Brazil, public space is a relative term. Children play in and out of front rooms and walkways, entrances to apartments often require trips through the homes of others, and parks are practically non-existent. Where there’s space to use, it’s used for housing, even in unsafe places. But when landslides wipe these homes out, or floods destroy them, an opportunity arises.

This is the inspiration behind the Grotao Community Center, under construction in the Paraisopolis favela in Sao Paulo. Designed by Urban-Think Tank, the project seeks to create a piece of flexible public space for this community.

“Public space is key because what they don’t have is, precisely, public space,” says U-TT co-founder Alfredo Brillembourg “It’s overbuilt, it’s very dense, so we have to find ways in which to recuperate whatever small spaces there are.”

In this neighborhood of 40,000, a steep hillside bottoms out in a bowl, where recent flooding severely damaged housing. The removal of the buildings opened up space, and Brillembourg and his multidisciplinary team of designers saw a chance to create some formal public space. The project includes a terracing of the hillside to create a series of plazas and playing fields, and seating for an amphitheater located at the bottom of the bowl, which is also used as the site of a community center, music school, and other public spaces.

“We imagined it immediately as perfect for an outdoor amphitheater, and also to retain the hill to stop the risk,” Brillembourg says.

The project was recently given a regional Gold Award by the Holcim Foundation for Sustainable Construction, which honors projects that “demonstrate an ability to stretch conventional notions about sustainable building and also balance environmental, social and economic performance.”

The city of Sao Paulo is funding the project, which is entering its second phase of construction next month. For Brillembourg, it was important to have city support, but also to get feedback from locals. He says they worked with the neighborhood to help form a community orchestra to use the amphitheater and music school.

Brillembourg and U-TT co-founder Hubert Klumpner have been working for a decade in slum areas throughout South America. They designed the Metro Cable gondola system that recently opened in Caracas, as well as a dry toilet system for informal developments and a series of “vertical gyms” that create space for sports in areas with little land availability. Their vertical gym prototype is included in the Design with the Other 90%: Cities exhibit at the United Nations, which Allison Arieff recently covered in these pages. 

U-TT’s slum-focused projects are part of an ongoing collection of research and practice that’s intended to create a toolbox of strategies that cities can use to upgrade their informal settlements.

“In four-year terms, or even three years in some parts of South America, mayors don’t have the ability to identify projects, develop the project and get it to a level of best practices of sustainable engineering,” says Brillembourg. “So we said, ‘what if we could start to design a set of buildings that would work like a kit of parts that any city could take or build upon?’”

Much of the group’s initial work was done in Caracas, Brillembourg’s hometown, but has since spread. He says that as urban populations grow and slums spread, the work has relevance all over the world.

“As we begin to formalize the favela, because it needs formal infrastructure, we can also start to think about a 21st century city that’s layered and that the boundaries between public and private are blurred,” Brillembourg says.

The way we think about slums, he argues, may need as much upgrading as the places themselves.

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