Social Architecture: The Misunderstanding That Led Ruy Ohtake To Improve Brazil’s Second Largest Favela

The story of the "Redondinhos" housing project in Heliópolis, São Paulo began with a misinterpreted quote by Ruy Ohtake. In 2003, a magazine published the following statement attributed to the prestigious architect and urban planner: "What I find most ugly in São Paulo is Heliopolis." After seeing the report, Ohtake clarified that his intention was to say that the ugliest in the city is the difference between rich and poor neighborhoods - "the difference between the Morumbi neighborhood and Heliopolis, the largest favela," he corrected.

The next week, John Miranda, a community leader at Heliopolis, called Ohtake. Instead of demanding explanations, he asked the architect to help improve the favela. Known for works such as Hotel Unique, Renaissance São Paulo Hotel, and the Tomie Ohtake Institute dedicated to his mother’s work, Ruy was faced with an unprecedented challenge, "real architecture," as he calls it.

Ruy Ohtake falou a respeito de trabalhos em Heliópolis durante palestra em Brasília. Foto: Karina Santiago/Centro Cultural do TCU. Image Cortesia de Centro Cultural TCU

The story was told by the architect in a lecture in Brasilia on June 6, held by the Cultural Center TCU supported by the CAU / BR. In this video, Ruy Ohtake talks about the subject, recorded by Emerson do Nascimento Fraga, federal counselor for Maranhão.

The initial phone call was the starting point for an extended project with the community that involved several works. The main projects were a housing complex, the Educational and Cultural Center of Heliópolis, which includes a public library, a cultural center with a cinema and gallery, and a space for handcraft fairs, as well as a technical school.

Ruy Ohtake designed and coordinated the work voluntarily, in collaboration with architect Daniela Della Volpe, and with the support of the Union of Nuclei Associations of Residents, São João Clímacco (Unas), and of the São Paulo City Hall.


The largest project designed for the community was the housing complex with cylindrical buildings, known as "Redondinhos." According to Ohtake, he spoke with the inhabitants of Heliopolis and designed according to the concerns inhabitants raised. The first concern was about the corridors, often times in housing projects, they became spaces for drugs and prostitution. 

Localização da favela de Heliópolis, em São Paulo, e croqui do conjunto habitacional dos “Redondinhos”. Imagem: Image Cortesia de Centro Cultural TCU

Considering this, Ohtake designed the building without corridors. "With staircase circulation and a 5 by 5 hall for the four entrances of the apartments," he explained. "The guys said: 'What a beautiful solution, that's great, let's move on.' Then I said: 'I am not satisfied... I'll do it round.'"

Planta de andar de um dos “Redondinhos”. Projeto: Ruy Ohtake. Image Cortesia de Centro Cultural TCU

The choice of the rounded shape, which became a landmark of the buildings, was not only for aesthetic purposes. "In the rounded buildings, you must separate the buildings. However, I gave dignity to the apartments: direct sun and ventilation. And in the living room, three windows with very good light."

There are 19 "Redondinhos" with colorful facades on the edges of the lot. In the center are a playground, a sports court, and a space for community use. Each building has four floors and 18 apartments of 50 m², a total of 342 units. The blocks have four apartments on each of the four floors. There are even two apartments on the ground floor, which house the elderly or disabled people.

Interior de um dos apartamentos: sala tem três janelas. Foto: Daniel Ducci/Divulgação. Image Cortesia de Centro Cultural TCU

The Role of Professionals in Social Architecture

For Ohtake, the role of the architect and urban planner is increased when working in social architecture. "When working in social programs, the architect must assume two principal attitudes: as a technician and as a citizen. It is essential to talk to the community, feel what the people think, not in a closed office to design in isolation."

The result, according to the architect, is to give dignity to the people of the community - something that didn’t occur in most of the sets of the "Minha Casa, Minha Vida" program. "It was a disaster. It looks like a lettuce plantation, all the same thing. Only the contractors were satisfied because they were hired to do the projects and constructions in one go."

Parte central do conjunto habitacional tem equipamentos públicos. Foto: Daniel Ducci/Divulgação. Image Cortesia de Centro Cultural TCU

This report is part of a special series of CAU / BR and CAU / UF highlighting the work of architects and urban planners who overcame reduced budgets and unified different opinions. They have succeeded in developing decent, quality housing for low-income families.

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Cite: Br, Cau. "Social Architecture: The Misunderstanding That Led Ruy Ohtake To Improve Brazil’s Second Largest Favela" [Arquitetura Social: o mal-entendido que levou Ruy Ohtake a Heliópolis em São Paulo] 08 Jul 2018. ArchDaily. (Trans. Carvalho, Guilherme) Accessed . <> ISSN 0719-8884

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