"Building a house takes time and money,“ said Marcio, a local resident of Complexo do Alemão, one of Rio de Janeiro’s numerous favelas, as he showed me around his house. This is why a house is often built over several generations: a floor may be laid, columns erected (rebar protruding), and a thin tin roof placed, but this is just to mark where the next builder should finish the job. "Constructing a roof with tiles is not a sign of wealth here — rather, it means that there’s not enough money to continue constructing the house,” explains Manoe Ruhe, a Dutch urban planner who has lived in the favela for the last six months.
An architect who has always been fascinated by the way people live, I had come to do a residency at Barraco # 55, a cultural center in Complexo do Alemão, in order to learn how its citizens went about building their communities. I had many questions: are there rules of construction? What are the common characteristics of each house? Do they follow the same typology? How are the interiors of the homes? What construction techniques and what materials are used?
Marcio grew up in a single story, gabled-roof house that his father built. Twenty-five years ago, he built a first floor above the house; today he has resumed work and is gradually building a second floor.
Eduardo is in a similar situation - he’s trying to build his own house above his mother’s: "I made two separate areas, one where I live and a smaller one that I can rent or use as a music studio.” This is common in the favela, where a family will rent out different floors of their house to either other families or extended relatives. Houses located on the main street tend to use the ground floor for commercial purposes.
The building materials used for the homes must meet three major criteria: be low cost, light enough to be carried on men's backs, and small enough to pass through the narrow streets of the favela. As a result, all the houses are built with bricks; concrete pillars are used for the structure; floors are made from floor beams and slabs; and the roof is almost always corrugated iron.
Some people make use of craftsmen, especially for the more technical tasks - like casting slabs or placing a sheet metal roof. But many build their own homes with the help of friends who lend a hand on the weekends. Sometimes they also barter — Eduardo purchased the tiles for the facade of a friend’s house in exchange for windows, which his friend will install.
And while there are no official rules of construction, there is a law of mutual respect. Eduardo told me he decided not to install a window in his bedroom as it would have opened directly on to his neighbor's house. After all, the favela is a small world, where everyone knows and talks to everyone else, and so they must come to peaceful agreements among themselves. This said, an extra floor will almost always obstruct a neighbor’s views — in this case, it's common to leave a space of at least one meter between each house.
While the exteriors of houses of a more commercial typology may be painted or tiled, in general, home exteriors are rather austere: almost all leave the brick exposed to the street; air conditioners and antennas protrude from the walls; one or two big water tanks are placed on the roof to provide running water; and windows are protected with steel security bars, which often take star-like forms.
Interiors, on the other hand, are a different story. In general, interior spaces are well cared for and clean, painted and decorated, and almost all have big televisions as their centerpieces. Tiles are used frequently - on façades, walls, staircases, floors. It’s currently trendy to tile the floor of the last floor - a terrace used for washing and drying clothes, and also for social gatherings - in the iconic “Copacabana pattern.” The interior walls of the terrace floor are also painted in particularly brilliant colors: blues, greens, purples, and yellows.
However, interior spaces can be quite dark: the typical window models, made from polycarbonate with aluminium frames, are small. This is due to cost, but also to protect the interiors from the harsh sun/rain of Rio de Janeiro’s tropical climate.
At first glance, the favelas — to me — were an impressive, chaotic mass: waves of houses that invaded every free space. However, I was looking with eyes accustomed to seeing delineated streets, open spaces, formal organizations. I had to adapt to a new world, one of narrow streets and steep stairs, of small windows overlooking dark alleys where electrical cables tangle. Once I did, I was able to see how the favela follows its own rules, its own logic, and its own codes.
This article was written by Solène Veysseyre, a French architect who has worked in Brussels, Belgium and Santiago de Chile; it was edited and translated by Vanessa Quirk, manager of editorial content at ArchDaily.