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Revisit: Pedregulho housing complex, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, by Affonso Eduardo Reidy

Both internationally revered and plagued with controversy, this social housing complex in Rio de Janeiro has now been resurrected following decades of neglect

Pedregulho is celebrated as one of the most important works in Brazilian modern architecture, combining, as few have, social concern and formal spectacle. Its history is convoluted – heavily criticised during its construction, widely praised by architects, abandoned by the government and appropriated by its residents, it was adopted as part of Brazil’s cultural heritage and finally restored. It has witnessed the urban vitality of Rio de Janeiro, its contradictions and its transformations. Pedregulho stands out in the landscape not only for its privileged site in the city – an elevation with an amazing view to the North Zone, the docks and Maciço da Tijuca hills – but also for its singular architecture.

Its neighbourhood, São Cristóvão, was the residence of the Brazilian imperial family in the 19th century and one of the first areas to be occupied in the North Zone. Far from the beaches on the coast, in the 1920s it was designated an area for residential and industrial use, and became an industrial neighbourhood housing a working-class population in tenement houses and favelas – which still characterise the area today.

‘Residents placed clothes lines on the facades, compromising the building’s appearance. After the restoration, people agreed to hang clothes within their own homes’

The complex was conceived in the 1940s by the Department of Popular Housing (Departamento de Habitação Popular, or DHP) at Rio’s City Hall. Designed to include 522 units and a full range of community services, Pedregulho was part of the DHP’s social housing plan for the city in response to the growing and alarming housing problems of the then federal capital. The engineer and feminist Carmen Portinho assumed o ce as director of the DHP in 1948 and started to prioritise social housing plans. Portinho had spent six months in England in 1945, where she became acquainted with the debates about city reconstruction in the postwar period. Back in Brazil, she advocated the creation of autonomous neighbourhood units with public, rented housing near workplaces and social, medical and educational services.

Portinho and her partner, Affonso Eduardo Reidy, were the intellectual pillar of the DHP. They had plans to build a housing complex in each neighbourhood of Rio, but only four – Pedregulho, Gávea, Vila Isabel and Paquetá – were built (and none according to their original designs). Pedregulho was the most ambitious. The idea for the project was first developed in 1946 and construction began two years later; the first stage – including the residential blocks B1 and B2, the school, the health centre, the laundry, the changing rooms and the pool – was inaugurated in 1950 and 1951.

Pedregulho’s formal plasticity and richness impressed the architectural press. In 1950, the work of Reidy grew in importance and interest, and the housing complex became an object of pilgrimage for national and foreign architects. Specialist journals hailed the building as one of the various internationally admired works of the Modern Movement in Brazil – in 1950 when the first buildings were still in construction, the AR commented that ‘Brazil may be about to make an outstanding contribution to another phase of the Modern Movement’. The formal repertoire of modern Brazilian architecture is easily recognised in various elements such as the brise-soleil, cobogós (perforated screens of ceramic blocks), pilotis, a free plan and the murals by Roberto Burle Marx and Anísio Medeiros.

Acervo alfredo 2º est perspecta 1946 pedregulho rio de janeiro architectural review brasil 1465

Acervo alfredo 2º est perspecta 1946 pedregulho rio de janeiro architectural review brasil 1465

Source: Acervo Alfredo Britto

Sketch of an earlier iteration from 1946

Residents occupied the smaller blocks as soon as they were opened. Coming from precarious rental housing, these mostly low-wage city o cials (such as the mayor’s driver or a zoo employee) were selected by Portinho and the DHP’s social workers; rent was deducted from the pay they received from the state. The occupation of these new modern blocks was closely monitored: Portinho believed residents needed to be taught how to live ‘correctly’ in these modern homes and encouraged to properly use the resources provided and foster a ‘spirit of community and unity’. One key example of this unity was the communal laundry, inspired by European housing estates. It faced resistance from residents – many were self-conscious about laundry staff seeing their torn or old clothing. An anonymous system of marking clothes was implemented, and Reidy, Portinho and the DHP team sent their own clothes to set an example – but to no avail. The collective water and electricity bills also caused friction between residents and the administrator, and a DHP document from 1961 states that there were ‘daily clashes between residents as a result of their very different ways of life’.

Pedregulho site plan and section

Pedregulho site plan and section

Click to download

The international celebration of Brazilian architecture and the important role of Pedregulho did not soften the tensions and internal dfficulties at City Hall as the final buildings were completed: the serpentine Block A (with 272 units) remained under construction throughout the 1950s, with delays due to the high costs to the public purse, and was not opened until the early 1960s – by which time, City Hall’s attitude towards housing had shifted towards isolated single-family houses, far from the centre of the city. By the time Block A was occupied, Portinho and her team had been dismissed. The DHP was closed in 1962 and, with it, the dream of the autonomous neighbourhood unit came to an end. The buildings remained the property of the city but began to be managed by different public institutions: first by the social services office, then by Companhia de Habitação Popular do Estado da Guanabara (COHABGB), which became the Companhia Estadual de Habitação do Estado do Rio de Janeiro (CEHAB-RJ). Many of the complex tasks of managing the building, which the state had failed to perform, fell to the residents.

Pedregulho section

Pedregulho section

Click to download

Gradually, the buildings succumbed to unforeseen and inappropriate uses. The health clinic, used as a hospital from 1953, was closed in the 1990s and now sits in a state of impending ruin. The laundry operated until the mid-1970s – no one knows the fate of the imported equipment purchased by the DHP. The school, gym and changing rooms are in a better physical state; management of them was transferred to the municipality, which fenced off from the rest of the estate the gym, pool, changing rooms and open sports court, originally for the use of all the residents. As for the open spaces, when the DHP stopped managing the estate, some residents took on the responsibility for their maintenance, albeit precariously. The garden, designed by Roberto Burle Marx, gradually lost its original characteristics and, by the ’70s, was overrun by weeds. In the absence of the DHP, new residents who did not meet the original criteria – such as people squeezed out of the favelas – were admitted to residential units to fulfi l emergency housing need. The utopian, transformative vision for the project was slowly forgotten.

Burle marx landscape studio 159 b pedregulho rio de janeiro architectural review brasil 1465

Burle marx landscape studio 159 b pedregulho rio de janeiro architectural review brasil 1465

Source: Burle Marx Landscape Studio

Roberto Burle Marx’s design for the playground

In the 1980s, the construction of the memory of modern Brazilian architecture invited renewed interest in Pedregulho. With the contrast between the images of it in its heyday and its sad reality steadily growing, experts and residents began to press for restoration work to begin.

In 2005 a strategic plan for the restoration of Block A was carried out by Alfredo Britto’s practice, outlining the architectural problems as well as the main demands of the ACERVO ALFREDO BRITTO community. In December 2010, works finally began, with emergency structural restoration services on the first-floor slab, the removal of rubbish that had been accumulating for decades on the ground floor, the overhaul of sanitary and roof facilities, and an attempt to enclose the complex. The works lasted until 2015, costing R$45 million. At all stages, residents remained in their homes, following the process and living with the inconveniences. After so many years of abandonment, expectations were enormous.

The restoration was not without its challenges. The original west-facing wooden frames, whose complex design included integrated shutters, were thermally inadequate and had deteriorated with lack of maintenance – by the time of the renovation, only eight of 272 remained. After long negotiations with residents, some of whom had replaced the frames, it was agreed that new durable aluminium frames would be installed and painted in the same shade of blue as the originals. This solution, though widely debated among experts, aimed to ‘rescue’ the project’s original aims and ensure the building’s longevity.

Pedregulho floor plans

Pedregulho floor plans

Click to download

Cobogós installed along the long, winding corridors had also been damaged over time, creating a patchwork of missing or randomly replaced parts but, by the time of the restoration, the original ceramic pieces were no longer in production. Despite enormous difficulty, a manufacturer that produced new cobogós similar to the originals was finally found. Some of the original cobogós were better preserved and reassembled as a testimony to the original work.

Pedregulho revisit block b contruction 1940s rio de janeiro architectural review brasil 1465

Pedregulho revisit block b contruction 1940s rio de janeiro architectural review brasil 1465

Source: Acervo Alfredo Britto

Block B construction in the 1940s

Residents have appropriated the buildings over time, making renovations and internal adaptations, despite not legally owning the property. According to data from Helga Santos, about half of residents in the 2000s were originally from the first waves of occupation in the 1960s, which comprised mainly service providers, industry workers and government employees from a working class that has risen socially in the country’s years of economic stability. But, despite not having legal ownership of the apartments, it has became common practice for residents to ‘sell’ them; they exchange or pass on the units using non-legally binding contracts, without the knowledge of CEHAB.

Revista manchete acervo fernando uchoa pedregulho revisit carmen portinho rio de janeiro architectural review brasil 1465

Revista manchete acervo fernando uchoa pedregulho revisit carmen portinho rio de janeiro architectural review brasil 1465

Carmen Portinho (R) prioritised social housing as director of the Departamento de Habitação Popular

As the property is still owned by Rio de Janeiro’s state government, any increases in real-estate value resulting from extensive renovations do not benefit the residents. However, residents expect the state to officially pass the property into their hands in the future, possibly in the form of an official condominium with fees, proper administration and management of the newly restored building. Even with private ownership and an opportunity for a quick profit on the horizon, it is unlikely that many residents will sell up and move on. People hold Pedregulho in such deep affection and finding buyers in an unpopular industrial neighbourhood may be a challenge.

Pedregulho domestic scenes rio de janeiro feilpe varanda architectural review brasil 1465

Pedregulho domestic scenes rio de janeiro feilpe varanda architectural review brasil 1465

Source: Felipe Varanda

The spaces have been lovingly appropriated by the residents, despite not having ownership of their apartments

Many residents’ demands were largely assuaged by the renovation but some aspects are still unresolved. The communal laundry is still not functional – after decades without it, residents have worked out private solutions, such as installing tanks and washing machines in the bathrooms and placing clothes lines outside on the facades, compromising the building’s appearance and causing conflict between neighbours. After the restoration, people collectively agreed not to hang clothes outside, instead finding space within their own homes.

Pedregulho’s occupation was not in line with the DHP’s vision, and its trajectory over almost 70 years is one of state negligence. But, despite the absence of permanent management and a need to teach people how to live collectively, residents made the housing complex their own. Their affection grew, apparently reinforced by the multitude of national and foreign visitors who go to admire the work. The alleged obsolescence of Pedregulho emerges only in comparison with the inauguration images that won over the world back in the ’60s. There is a nostalgia for the loss of something that cannot return and only truly existed in memories and reproduced narratives. The restored Pedregulho has emerged as a different building, expressing the layers of time and remaining complexly inhabited.

This piece was translated from the Portuguese by Anton Stark, and features in the AR October issue on Brazil – click here to purchase your copy today. The original text appears below

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