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Architecture for all

A study of 100 years of social housing in Brazil uncovers high-quality projects during the Vargas era

Gávea Housing Project, by Affonso Eduardo Reidy, who also designed the Pedregulho Housing Project, both in Rio, in the early 1950s: social projects with historical and aesthetic importance

INÊS BONDUKIGávea Housing Project, by Affonso Eduardo Reidy, who also designed the Pedregulho Housing Project, both in Rio, in the early 1950s: social projects with historical and aesthetic importance INÊS BONDUKI

Although Brazil produced important, world-known architects and architectural landmarks in the twentieth century—Oscar Niemeyer and Brasília being at the top of the list—there is a large body of work in the area of social housing that is little known and more or less at the margins of official history. Not that these works are not visible or numerically insignificant. They are located in cities throughout Brazil, and their history constitutes a narrative with breaks, but also with strong continuity, through to current public policy, in addition to having created a valuable repertoire of technical and formal experiments in architecture and urban planning.

The objective of illuminating and cataloging the history of social housing in Brazil, which has existed here for just over 100 years (since 1912), led to the preparation of the recently released 3-volume book Os pioneiros da habitação social (The pioneers of social housing) by Nabil Bonduki, architect and professor at the University of São Paulo School of Architecture and Urban Planning (USP-FAU), and a São Paulo city councilor as a member of the Workers’ Party (PT). The “meat” of the work, which is in volume 2, is dedicated to the period stretching from 1930 to 1964, which spans from President Getúlio Vargas’ first term to the military coup. “Back then there was a social housing cycle linked to the principles of modern urban planning,” says Bonduki.

While the 100 years of social housing began with a federal government project in Marechal Hermes, a neighborhood in the city of Rio de Janeiro—that managed to complete 165 houses despite great opposition—the Vargas era established a new culture and a different approach. “The idea of the social function of housing was established; the State took on the role of addressing urban issues,” says Bonduki. “And modernism became the language of this new period.”

Advances and setbacks
Overall, Os pioneiros da habitação social addresses both the foundations and practices of Brazilian housing policy over a century and the architectural advances and setbacks during the same period. The work, published jointly by Editora Unesp and Edições Sesc SP, has a total of 1,208 pages illustrated with photos and figures. Volume 1, Cem anos de política pública no Brasil (100 years of public policy in Brazil), recounts and comments on the history of public housing in Brazil. The projects built by the social security institutes, responsible for public housing during the Vargas era, are addressed in detail in the second part. Volume 2, Inventário da produção pública no Brasil entre 1930 e 1964 (Catalog of public projects in Brazil between 1930 and 1964), coauthored by the architect and urban planner Ana Paula Koury, surveys and documents 322 projects (in 24 states) during the period, and includes figures of each in comparative scales. Volume 3, Onze propostas de morar para o Brasil moderno (Eleven housing proposals for modern Brazil), studies 11 of these projects in depth, with three-dimensional models of the original designs and photo essays by Bob Wolfenson.

Paquetá housing project in Rio, built in 1952, and building from the early years of the construction of Brasília: past attempts to harmonize buildings and their environments

Bob Wolfenson / Os pioneiros da Habitação Social Paquetá housing project in Rio, built in 1952, and building from the early years of the construction of Brasília: past attempts to harmonize buildings and their environmentsBob Wolfenson / Os pioneiros da Habitação Social

The roots of this study can be found in Bonduki’s master’s and PhD research at FAU, submitted in the 1990s and supported by FAPESP, which led to the publication of the book As origens da habitação social no Brasil (The origins of social housing in Brazil), published by Estação Liberdade in 1998 and now in its 6th edition, on the transformation of Brazilian cities in the Vargas era. During his research, Bonduki identified important architectural projects built during the period that had rarely been studied. His interest in increasing the historiography on the topic grew from that seed, focusing on “studying Brazilian modern architecture, especially from the 1940s and 1950s, and how it related to social housing.”

The research project spanned 17 years (1997-2013) at USP, initially at the São Carlos School of Engineering and later at FAU, and involved about 40 researchers, many of whom then carried out their own studies on topics arising during the process. The key stage of the study was a complete field survey of social housing production from 1930 to 1964—the second of the three volumes of the book, and the first to be finalized. The two large phases of the study received support from FAPESP, and the second, developed after the survey, was selected through a public call for proposals promoted by Petrobras in the area of cultural heritage and documentation.

The research was carried out together with the team of Professor Carlos Ferreira Martins, director of the Institute of Architecture and Urban Planning at USP São Carlos (cited on the inner flap of volume 2), who questioned the traditional historical approach to Brazilian modernist architecture, as it excluded some themes and architects. According to both Martins and Bonduki, the trajectory of “more traditional” architecture, for housing for the masses, represents a historical contribution as important as that of established names such as Niemeyer, Lúcio Costa, Rino Levi and Lina Bo Bardi.

Concentration of housing projects in São Paulo's east side


Even an architect normally included in this group, Affonso Eduardo Reidy, was not well known for his work on social housing, despite being the designer of projects of great historical and aesthetic importance, such as the serpentine Gávea and Pedregulho projects, in Rio, both inaugurated in the early 1950s. Reidy was married to the engineer and theorist Carmen Portinho, another cardinal name in the history of Brazilian social housing. Portinho was director of the Department of Public Housing—linked to the office of the mayor of the Federal District (Rio de Janeiro at the time), it was one of the few regional agencies that carried out important projects during Vargas’ first term (1937-1945)—and later, during Vargas’ second term (1952-1954), she was a member of the Central Board of the Public Housing Foundation.

Forgotten by historiography
One of the architects “missing from the dominant historiography,” according to Bonduki, is Carlos Frederico Ferreira, who spent his entire career at the Industrial Retirement and Pension Institute (IAPI), the public agency that was most prominent in producing housing during the Vargas period. He led the Architecture and Design Sector and, later, the Engineering Division. “I was able to talk to him in 1994, six months before his death,” says Bonduki. “No one knew where he was until I located him in the hills of Nova Friburgo, in the state of Rio de Janeiro.”

During their conversation, Ferreira summarized IAPI’s central concern as “putting housing units within the reach of the majority of members with modest salaries, that is, establishing the lowest price without sacrificing necessary hygiene and comfort levels.” This advanced concern was in consonance with the principles established by the Swiss architect Le Corbusier in 1933, at the International Congress for Modern Architecture, including, in the words of Bonduki, the idea that housing “was not just a living unit,” but also included public spaces such as squares and schools. However, according to the researcher from FAU, this concept encountered huge obstacles in Brazil, starting with the construction industry. “The issues that had to be addressed were basic, such as the lack of standards for producing a simple brick—whose size depended on the origin—which made it difficult to build large-scale projects,” writes Bonduki.

Another important architect from this period was Rubens Porto, advisor to the National Labor Council, who established general directives for the social security institutes and recommendations for construction of housing projects. In 1938, Porto published a book containing a series of solutions for these buildings, which involved streamlining of all processes, eliminating all superfluous decoration, delivery of furnished homes and a type of multifamily building with four floors, with stilts and two-story apartments. In practice, even when not following these precepts, most of the projects developed by the institutes had clear ideas of urban integration and the rational and industrial use of materials.

“It’s difficult to pinpoint the existence of a housing policy during the period, but there were simultaneous actions that fit together,” says Bonduki. “The scenario consisted of several institutes with their own characteristics and teams, trying to ensure modernization and lower costs.” A “specialized techno-bureaucracy” formed, together with engineering departments capable of formulating solutions for the challenges of creating low-cost, good-quality popular housing.  At a time when today’s construction companies did not exist, and architecture schools were new, these departments acted, according to Bonduki, like “large architectural firms” and “practical laboratories.”

... and Iguaçu Park, in Curitiba: low quality both in terms of urban planning and architectural design

Ministry of Cities / CEF… and Iguaçu Park, in Curitiba: low quality both in terms of urban planning and architectural designMinistry of Cities / CEF

Low-income population
According to Bonduki’s study, the notable advances in architecture and urban planning and the creation of an inspiring legacy did not result in corresponding achievements in access to housing by low-income families. In the context of the transition from an agrarian society based principally on the export of agricultural goods to an urban industrial, capitalist era, in which the government’s role became to protect the worker, private initiatives in the field of housing were discouraged by the Tenant Act of 1942, which froze rents. At first, the effect was positive for the low-income population because it significantly decreased the percentage of their salaries spent on housing.

But this situation, combined with the intense urbanization of Brazil (8 million city-dwellers in 1930 grew to 32 million in 1960), led to a shortage of housing, swelling of the outskirts of cities, lack of public services and a wave of evictions. In short, a serious housing crisis. At the end of the period, social security institutes did not even come close to meeting the population’s housing needs, having built only 175,000 units. “The solution for the low-income population was to take construction into their own hands, on the outskirts of large cities, establishing the model we see now,” says Bonduki.

Contrary to the idea that Brasília, inaugurated in 1960, was a revolutionary project, Bonduki believes it was the “end point” of the experiments in the 1930s to 1950s, with its superblocks resembling the housing projects designed in the 1940s. Additionally, the social security institutes had an important role in building these residential areas.

New programs
From the political point of view, the inauguration of the new capital took place during the wave of vitality in the fields of architecture and urban planning, achieved during Vargas’s first term.  At the end of the period, a proposal called for the unification of the social security institutes into a single agency and the transfer of part of its resources to an institution that would be established specifically to meet universal housing needs, the Popular Housing Foundation (FCP). The management of the institutes themselves, in addition to other sectors of society, opposed the change, which would have deprived them of resources and privileges. Because of this, the FCP was established without funds and, according to Bonduki, “its failure set the formulation of a consistent housing policy back by 20 years.”

The plans were resumed in the early years after the 1964 military coup, when the pension funds were abolished upon the creation of the Brazilian Social Pension Institute (INPS, later replaced by the INSS) and the National Housing Bank (BNH), focusing on construction and financing of housing. It was a second-tier bank, meaning that it worked directly with other banks, not with the public, and existed until 1986, when it was incorporated into the Federal Savings Bank. However, the inaction during the times of the FCP, together with the dismantling of structures by the 1964 coup, removed from the scene those dedicated to social housing policy that really met the needs of the population. At that time, housing units were sold to the future inhabitant and, while there was emphasis and success in mass production (4.2 million residences), the quality of the projects suffered greatly. At the end of the BNH’s life, during the period of redemocratization, the acronym was known as a synonym of ugly, poorly finished buildings.

Beginning in the 1990s, important experiences at the municipal level foreshadowed a series of advances in urban and housing policy, many due to popular initiatives. This was when the Statute of the City, of the Ministry of Cities and of the National Housing Fund, was instituted. This framework was auspicious, strengthened by favorable demographic conditions, such as the ending of the cycle of migration from the countryside to the cities and the reduction in the rate of population growth.

Political issues, however, led to the establishment in 2009 of the federal program My House, My Life, which Bonduki feels is very limited. He stresses the existence, today, of “a very robust, healthy system of financing and subsidies with its own sources.” But he affirms that “they tried to tie job creation and economic growth to the housing agenda, without dealing with land-ownership and urban questions, generating contradictory results.” Bonduki forecasts increasing problems related to mobility, safety and the environment as a result. He believes the government must urgently focus on quality rather than quantity, as the “pioneers” did, and in order to do this it needs to seriously address the land-ownership problem.

The pioneers of social housing in Brazil (No. 2012/50030-0); Grant Mechanism Publication grant; Principal investigator Nabil Bonduki (FAU-USP); Investment R$40,000.00 (FAPESP).