Our interview with Brazil’s social housing trailblazer
by Hernan Rivera, AIA
This week Orlando’s design community is excited to host a lecture by noted architect and urban planner Hector Vigliecca, who inspires many new practitioners like me with his body of work, especially social housing in Brazil’s favelas. In collaboration between the University of Florida, Citylab Orlando, American institute of Architects Orlando and HuntonBrady Architects, we will present his public lecture and book signing at the Orange County Regional History Center on Thursday, March 26. Vigliecca recently published The Third Territory – Collective Housing & City. Accompanying Vigliecca will be Historian & Professor Lizete Rubano from the School of Architecture of Mackenzie & FAAP Universities in Brazil.
Prior to this week’s lecture, I conversed with Vigliecca via email from his office in Brazil to learn about his career and how an understanding of his projects might benefit Orlando. He even weighed in on fellow Brazilian and Orlando City Lions soccer star, Kaka!
Much appreciation to Professor Martha Kohen for introducing Hector to the University of Florida and AIA Orlando.
HuntonBrady: What do you want U.S. audiences to learn about social housing for architecture in “The Third Territory”?
Vigliecca: “The Third Territory” is a concept that synthesizes the essence of our work. We respect what is already present but we do not imitate nor re-interpret it. We narrate the existing creating new living possibilities. This is the “third territory.” Through the book we illustrate our thinking process when facing critical areas. What is most important when designing a social housing project is creating city conditions instead of isolated housing clusters based on repetitive formulas. With each project we develop we try to experiment with new living possibilities while considering real city possibilities, despite being quite difficult to establish a final and definite result in such a vast and dramatic subject.
HuntonBrady: Florida has a large South American immigrant population. Almost 1/3 of all Brazilians living in the U.S. live in Florida. Why did you move from Uruguay to Brazil? How is your work informed by your early years in Uruguay?
Vigliecca: In the 70´s all of South America lived through a revolutionary spirit. The universities gathered the highest concentration of rebellion. As an architecture professor in Montevideo along with my colleagues, we experienced episodes of restricted freedom and civil rights threats. The coup d’état and consequentially the regime of exceptions further accentuated the absence of work opportunities.
Brazil was going through a similar political situation since the military took over the government in 1964. In Brazil however the so called “economic miracle” along with developmental policies triggered new projects and new construction.
At the Architecture School of the University of the Republic – UDELAR – in Uruguay where I graduated in 1968, we were experiencing a moment of great intellectual intensity and political involvement. The interaction between prominent professors and a relatively small college population allowed an ample debate that was constantly being renewed. What the European vanguards were discussing at the time was quickly incorporated into our education.
My involvement with the housing cooperatives in Uruguay during the 70´s was fundamental and it took place in a moment in which the best professionals of my generation were gathered. The cooperatives were created by the civil society and had significant participation of architects.
Some people of immense intellectual shine such as Ramiro Bascans (in memoriam), Thomas Sprechmann and Arturo Villaamil, my former founding partners at the time, inspired my work very much.
Together we developed for the CCU (Uruguayan Cooperativist Centre) the “Complejo Bulevar Artigas” housing project which will be part of the exhibit “Latin America in Construction 1955 – 1980” at the MoMA that will open on the 29th of March. Original drawings and photos we donated to the MoMA for their permanent collection will be exhibited.
HuntonBrady: Many of your projects address social issues of poor and marginalized people, especially housing. What triggered you to go into this market and focus on this population?
Vigliecca: The education and professional experience I had in Uruguay while developing social housing projects allowed me to face this challenge that is the great challenge of Latin America, where uncontained and marginal growth prevails. Approximately 70% of the Latin American urban territories, especially in Brazil, are informal, which in other words, are places “void of city.” This information boosted my interests and challenged me to use my experience in order to face these critical areas.
HuntonBrady: When did you first realize that architecture could elevate people’s lives?
Vigliecca: As a student, I was very impressed by something the Italian historian Giulio Carlos Argan said: “Cities are the environments in which we exist and we know that a positive or a negative relationship with the environment can determine the physical, psychological and moral health of individuals and social groups.”
Based on this idea, program is not the only variable that motivates the process of a project. Every situation must be faced in an ethical, rigorous and delightful way. When I am asked about the Oscar Freire Street project (retail street for the upper class) and Heliópolis (São Paulo´s biggest favela) I tell them that both projects were developed in the same way, with the exact same precision and focus on the quality of human experience.
HuntonBrady: Homelessness in Central Florida is a major issue, especially for families. Recently the City of Orlando & Florida Hospital pledged millions of dollars to find permanent housing and long-term solutions for this population. How can the architecture community in Orlando help?
Vigliecca: Firstly we need to be aware that architecture alone does not result in revolutions or in significant changes. My experience taught me that significant improvements are only reached with political action. And furthermore only when these policies exhibit knowledge on what it means to be a city along with its social and territorial organization, and not simply a policy of numbers.
Therefore, social and specific organizations, official plans (urban, housing, etc.) and social pressure tend to structure some of the agents/mechanisms that participate in the dispute of the urban territory that can then suggest possibilities within their realm of influence and expertise.
HuntonBrady: Orlando has a lot of young architects who are eager and energetic. We are inspired by your work. Do you have any advice to new architects who want to positively impact their city?
Vigliecca: Definitely, impacting the city cannot be understood as practicing architecture by giving excessive importance to an originality void of meaning, purpose or objectives; it cannot be defined by a commercial practice with no concepts; it should not be defined by obsessively building generic volumes.
To cause a positive impact in the city should mean to understand it through the process of building in a solidary way with its surroundings, making the public-private interface more evident, weaving it with its topography and landscape.
HuntonBrady: Orlando City is a new Major League Soccer team and will play for the first time in the 2015 season. Brazilian soccer star KaKa joined our team. Do you like soccer? Can KaKa take us to a championship?
Vigliecca: I have a special interest in the manifestation of great masses more than the sport itself. Soccer is the game of great crowds and to me what is interesting is what this represents socially and how stadiums express themselves in the city, their legacy and their social inclusion potential.
In relation to KaKa, I understand soccer not as an individual sport: from a tactical point of view, a team cannot depend only on its star player. However, the star cheers up the team and attracts more crowds to the games and as a result increases overall self-esteem. Quite often a star with charisma creates certain magnetism in the team that becomes noticeable through a magical understanding amongst team players during the game…I hope this is the case of Orlando City and that they become the next champions!