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Favela Cloud Imagines The Slums Of Rio As Futuristic Architecture [Q&A]

Danish architects create a new design for Favela Santa Marta.
July 11, 2012, 10:28pm

Concerned with the development of housing in large cities, three architects at Aalborg University in Denmark set out to conceive of a structure that would address the needs of Rio’s Favela Santa Marta, one the city’s many underdeveloped slums. What Johan Kure, Kemo Usto, and Thiru Manickam came up with was Favela Cloud, a concept incorporating Cobogó design, a modular style sometimes seen in Brazilian architecture.


Favela Cloud is divided into two parts, with a recreational and sports plaza at its lower level and a residential area at the upper level. With this design, the team hopes to reorganize the favela and yet retain some of the qualities of urban living that it has come to embody.

We spoke with Kemo Usto to learn a bit more about this project.

The Creators Project: How did you come up with the concept for Favela Cloud?
Kemo Usto: The cloud idea came from looking at the Christ the Redeemer statue every day, surrounded by hills, sometimes apparent, sometimes hidden in the clouds. Meanwhile, we were working on a space at the top of Favela Santa Marta, which had great potential, but lacked the shade to support a comfortable outdoor area. So we started to research Brazilian Cobogó to gain some inspiration, and then we came up with the possibility of creating a livable cloud, an urban Cobogó, covering the area and providing new opportunities for the slum's residents.

What would this structure be made of?
The building structure would be made of polycarbonate and photovoltaic (solar) cells applied over a metal structure, like a board with rafters. The photovoltaic cells are placed on the structure to generate better sun exposure and thus guarantee more energy.

Before starting the project, what did you guys know about Brazil and its favelas?
Our project and studies included a three month stay in Rio de Janeiro, near Favela Santa Marta. So, it was possible to study the favela thoroughly, and also visit other slums in Rio. Before coming to Rio de Janeiro, our knowledge of favelas and their problems was limited to what we read and saw on the news, some very naïve and general information. We knew the history of problems related to crime and poverty, but we were not aware of the complexity, uniqueness, and social qualities existing in the slums. At the same time, we were intrigued by the urban diversity and complexity we understood from pictures of favelas.

And how did you decide to work with them?
Favelas are home to a fifth of Rio's six million residents. The slums play a key role in the city's urban development, which is on the increase now due to economic growth and upcoming major sporting events: the Soccer World Cup in 2014 and the Olympic Games in 2016. Our question was, how can we, as architects and developers, handle the future development of favelas and discuss our visionary proposals for urban development?

And why did you choose Santa Marta for the project?
We chose Favela Santa Marta before coming up with the cloud concept. Its typology and configuration are typical of the city's south zone favelas, an area where slums have changed a lot over the past few years. Santa Marta was the first favela to go through a pacification process, it's located at a central region, it draws a lot of attention to itself, and it has the potential to be a great architectural experiment intending to influence a large segment of the public.

You suggest that favelas are more than just a source of urban blight, but rather a way of life and an example to learn from. What do you imagine they can teach us?
Rio de Janeiro's favelas have a different urban pattern, contrasting with the formal city. They have the potential to become a model for a more diversified, denser urban life. If we want to change how we live in the city, we can't keep up with the old building model using modernist bricks. We have to look at the potential of this complex, emerging housing scenario, rethink, and rearticulate it. This favela’s organization and social aspects are the parameters we're trying to understand and implement in our design. Favelas are not planned communities, but rather a system that evolves over time, affected by its own inner complexities. The first thing we as architects learn is to develop more flexible, dynamic designs. And it's not about developing a closed design, but rather improving our thinking about systems that may evolve much as favelas do. We believe that this is our duty as architects: to understand and apply those principles to our building environment.

Is this just a conceptual project or are you guys thinking about eventually realizing it?
The building is the first vision of a new way of life in high-density urban areas—a vision based on the ideas of density, self-organization, and mixed use that we see in favelas. At the same time, it's an answer for how to deal with specific topography, freeing up space, and providing an improved environment for slum-dwellers. As our proposal was created on a conceptual level, we would have to go deeper into the design before its construction. The next step would be to further study the building's structure, taking into consideration its location, researching new materials, as well as production processes to allow economically sustainable solutions. If there is an interest in putting into practice a new architectural model inspired by the slums, a new way of developing our concept, then yes, it could become real.