The best house at the lowest cost and least space

Study shows how modern Brazilian architecture is associated with development

“Rationalize construction methods, so as to obtain the lowest cost and the best house”. President Getúlio Vargas’s slogan was followed to the letter, but creatively, by architects in the early stage of modernism in Brazil. As the survey Economical Housing and Modern Architecture in Brazil shows, welfare housing projects from 1930 to 1964 sought to ally economy, practicality  and technique with esthetics.

“In spite of seeking rationality and economy, the projects were more flexible than those of today. Nowadays there are kitchenettes of only 24 square meters, the extreme of miniaturization”, explains Maria Ruth Amaral de Sampaio, the project’s general coordinator. “The floor plans did not have the standardized and monotonous solutions of the productions by BNH/Cohabs (the housing agencies in Brazil )in recent decades”, adds the architect Nabil Bonduki.

The project, supported by FAPESP, brings together researchers from the Architecture and Town Planning School of the University of São Paulo

(FAU/USP) and from the Department of Architecture of the São Carlos Engineering School (EESC), USP, focusing on São Paulo, although it has also examined examples in Rio de Janeiro, Belo Horizonte, Porto Alegre, Recife, Natal, Belém, Florianópolis and Brasília.

“The birth of housing as a social question meant not just the establishment of a new proposition for architecture and town planning, but of production, incorporating assumptions made by the modernist movement that presupposed mass construction, with standardization and prefabrication”, explains Maria Lucia Gitahy. The work wished to recover this history, the ground plans and the origins of these buildings, examining them in situ, recording them, cataloging them, talking with the pioneers of these projects, studying the legislation and the materials standards, identifying the origins of the welfare housing that preceded the creation of the National Housing Bank (BNH).

To cover these aspects, the sponsors, professors Nabil and Maria Ruth, decided to divide the project into five areas, each with a coordinator: 1) Production of housing carried out by the public authorities, Dr. Nabil Bonduki (EESC); 2) Laboratory zones in new towns, Carlos Roberto Monteiro de Andrade (EESC); 3) Private promotion of economical housing, Maria Ruth Amaral de Sampaio (FAU/USP); 4) Housing construction, Paulo César Xavier Pereira and Maria Lucia Caira Gitahy (FAU/USP) and 5) Housing legislation, Sarah Feldman (EESC).

The project also employed young students such as Georgia Novis de Figueiredo, from FAU/USP, 17 years old. “It was important to see how the construction industry moved backward, making the work more segmented. Nowadays, there are professionals who only know how to lay tiles, others do the flooring, etc.”

This enthusiasm extended to the other researchers, like 24-year-old Adriano Bosetti. He is completing an article on the analyses of buildings in the 9 de Julho Avenue  region, an example of the modernist concerns of the time: knocking down several blocks to rebuild them. “The opening of the 9 de Julho Avenue provided new space for vertical construction, where almost a hundred buildings were erected through the efforts of private developers who expressed themselves through large buildings with dozens of apartments”, he explains.

Public versus private
Public and a private construction ended up joining forces. “The State could not meet all the demand, but it took the lead and acted as a guide for private construction”, sums up Maria Ruth. As from 1930, Keynesian ideas and the rise of fascism and socialism created a climate that was favorable to State intervention in the economy and to providing housing for workers. The question played an essential role in the undertakings of the Estado Novo (New State- The Getúlio Vargas dictartoship), emerging as the dominant feature of the working class’s living conditions.

Housing appears as a decisive factor in creating the “new man”. The order went out to eliminate slums and unhealthy conditions, and give a metropolitan look to a town that still had traces of its Portuguese origins. State action in the direct construction of housing complexes and in financing workers’ housing was done through the creation of federal or regional construction bodies, such as the Retirement and Pensions Institutes (Institutos de Aposentadoria and Pensões) (1938), the Popular Housing Foundation (1946) and the Federal District Popular Housing Department. “These agencies were for low-income families, although not solely, since, they were associated with retirement funds, and covered various classes of worker, from factory-floor hands to engineers”, emphasizes Nabil.

In 1942, in a context where 70% of residences were still rented, the government intervened in the rental market thorough the Tenancy Act (Lei do Inquilinato). “The law ended up reducing construction in this period, as it showed landlords the intention of a restrictive policy ”, completes Maria Ruth.

The emphasis on social housing continued after World War II. The Dutra government, for example, feels the need to oppose the advance of the Brazilian Communist Party in the large urban centers, fearing that dissatisfaction over the housing crisis and supplies in general might cause dangerous revolts.

“The populist governments used the housing question more as an instrument to ensure electoral support for the governing parties that as a matter of public policy”, says Nabil.

Nabil Bonduki concludes that the proliferation of public bodies promoting welfare housing and the paucity of the results produced led to a small-minded policy of patronage and a narrow view of the housing question. “If the institutes thwarted more that they helped in establishing a public housing policy, at the same time, they carried out significant construction work, of great architectural value and to town planning, and they introduced innovative trends in town planning.

European influence
More than just a style, modern architecture appears as a cause for the architects of the time. Welfare housing was frequently seen as a way to change the living conditions of the working class, introducing new habits and a “modern” lifestyle, able to break the country’s pattern of backwardness. In the opinion of Lúcio Costa, the modern house would be an instrument for freeing workers.

The ideal modern house was a project making maximum use of space and minimizing expenditure, making better use of land, reducing the living area of the houses and consequently reducing the number of square meters of construction, and thus the cost of drainage, water and other items. It was the influence of the utilitarian ideas of modern European architecture, as practiced by the avant-garde in Germany, France, Austria, Switzerland, the Netherlands, and Belgium. The shape was to be determined by an internal function and the idea of the structure of the necessary, proclaimed by a Neue Wohnkultur, a new “dwelling” culture.

This repertoire arrived in Brazil through Brazilian professionals who had studied or done training periods abroad, such as Attílio Corrêa Lima and Carmen Portinho, directly through contact with foreign architects, or also through imported books and magazines. Corbusier, who came to Brazil in 1929 and 1936, giving lectures and, on his second trip, consulting on projects by the Ministry of Education and the University City (Cidade Universitária), profoundly influenced town planners of the time. The thinking that followed the logic of an association of many cells was a crucial landmark. “In São Paulo, besides Warchavchik and Le Corbusier, certain foreign architects who came to Brazil to exercise their profession, such as Franz Heep and Rino Levi, had a strong influence”, explains Maria Ruth.

The survey points out that, as to materials, there was no great difference between public and private building. Pressed concrete blocks were used to replace ceramic tiles and lined plywood boards for internal walls. “Greater use of cement was an innovation for everyone and the economic advantages were considerable”, explains Maria Lúcia”. Besides the visible change in the type of material used, the organization of the business changed, and construction began to take on a more business oriented nature, emerging in the context of the progress of liberal professionals such as architects and engineers”, tells Paulo César.

“Economical housing produced by private enterprise invested in vertical construction, while the one financed publicly experimented with blocks of no more that five stories, semidetached houses, back-to-back or separate. But the variety of construction in the period is very great and it is impossible to generalize”, sums up Maria Ruth.

In this experimental context, is it worth mentioning the publicly financed Pedregulho, a huge coiling building in Rio de Janeiro, by the architect Affonso Eduardo Reidy. In Pedregulho, following the example of Gávea and Deodoro, the suspended roadway proposed by Le Corbusier was put into practice, giving access to the third floor by a hanging bridge, taking advantages of the unevenness of the land. Stores, services and recreational areas were included. “Pedregulho needs to be seen in the context of a cycle of housing projects and not as an exceptional work, even though its enormous influence is undeniable”, points out Nabil.

This is the case of the Le Corbusier housing units, which led to a significant group of housing projects, intended particularly for the middle classes, with construction undertaken by private enterprise. The buildings designed by Niemeyer (Copan, JK, Montreal), Abelardo de Souza (Nações Unidas), Zarzur and Kogan (São Vito, Paim), and others, are examples of this.

The Copan (Companhia Pan Americana de Hotéis), a building by Niemeyer, was one of the pioneers in this, made up of almost 1.200 apartments in different programs organized in unconnected sectors. The living quarters were associated with the hotel, leisure services, retailing, and a free area set in an ample terraced garden.

Population growth
With population growth, the poor generally had to be content with slums or building a house with their own hands. Action by the State or Brazilian private enterprise could not meet demand, even after the creation of the BNH. The numbers are inexorable. A hundred million people have moved to live in towns in this country in the last 60 years. The solution for most people was self-help, since workers could only become owners after decades of a great deal of work and saving.

From the 1940s onward, there is a tendency for strong growth on the outskirts of towns. Allotments on the outskirts and informal settlement proliferated. In the absence of any effective action by the government, the Tenancy Law was successively renewed on the grounds that the country needed to solve the housing problem before it could free rents. Shantytowns grew in São Paulo, in Recife,  Salvador, in a period full of contradictions. While workers suffered from a lack of housing, towns like São Paulo are renewed with broad new avenues and “embellished by sky-scrapers”.

The FAPESP project finishes up showing how the period from 1930 to 1964 became the model for the country’s social house building insofar as the BNH’s housing policy as from 1964 focuses on the producer and not on the end user. With a few rare exceptions, mediocre, uniform, monotonous projects, lacking any association with their physical surroundings and the town, predominated, representing much worse town planning than the public pension plans”, sums up Nabil. It is difficult to point to why these buildings have remained until today as social examples in this country. “There was undoubtedly less financial pressure, which allowed a certain dynamism and creative freedom. It was much more a stand off with commercial interests than with financial capital”, affirms Paulo César.

At a time when we are witnessing today a process of settling the Vargas heritage by privatizing urban space, the survey serves as a counterweight. “Perhaps the biggest contribution this work has made is the recovery of architectural work of high quality that had disappeared from history, and the establishment of a new kind of document, the testimony of these pioneers”, says Paulo César.

The results of this dense work will be seen soon with the publication of a series of articles by the researchers in a book dedicated to interviews and biographical profiles of the pioneers of these constructions, and also a CD-ROM cataloging these examples that are, at least, “golden” centers of public housing in this country.

Maria Ruth Amaral de Sampaio is a graduate in Social Sciences from USP’s Philosophy, Arts, and Human Sciences Faculty. She did a specialization course at the École Pratique de Hautes Etudes, at the Sorbonne. She did her doctorate at the FAU-USP, where she presented her teaching thesis and became a staff professor. She has been president of the FAU-USP Research Commission, and, since 1998, she has been the director of the school.
Project: Economic Housing and Modern Architecture in Brazil (1930-64)
Investment: R$ 98,527.95