FAUUSP in Brazil explores how architecture can connect at the different scales of urban life
Christmas came with extra trimmings for Brazil when, as widely reported in December last year, it overtook the UK to become the sixth largest economy in the world. Although current growth forecasts, at 2.5 per cent for the coming year, show a moderate slow-down, the country remains buoyant − and ready to show off about it on the global stage: Rio de Janeiro is due to pick up the host-city baton from London for the next Olympic Games, and the 2014 World Cup is on the horizon.
Alongside these headline-grabbing events, it is increasingly recognised that the rapid expansion of urban centres over recent decades amounts to a massive change in our way of life − a change showing its impact in the worldwide rise of the ‘mega-city’, and São Paulo is a prime example. Transformation of this scale, choreographed to the fanfare of international sporting spectaculars, naturally begs the question of what it all means for Brazilian architecture. Does design have an appropriate platform in national policy on proliferating urban development?
Is Rio getting stage fright at the prospect of four billion pairs of eyes trained on the 2016 Games? As shepherds for the next generation of design professionals, architecture schools are necessarily engaged in such debates. Milton Braga, partner in the much-fêted firm of MMBB and a professor at the Architecture and Urbanism College of the University of São Paulo (FAUUSP), highlights the value of embedding an urban dialectic in the architectural curriculum.
An overcast rendering from Miller’s project. The island is linked to São Paulo’s transport system through footbridges, cycleways and a direct bus connection
It is, he says, essential to good practice: ‘Students are always thinking about the city and so they have to consider the collective. This is our tradition − the social tradition of the Paulista School.’ With big money pouring in and mega-projects on the drawing board, keeping social values on the national agenda will be a challenge.
But, according to Braga, the mood is far from cynical: ‘People who work with design feel this sense of commitment very much. Until recently, there were few incentives to commit funds to construction, but now the possibility of running projects that can be paid for is clearer.’ This new stability is enhanced by the ‘demographic dividend’. A widening skills base, declining birth rates and increased life expectancy offer Brazil a unique opportunity for consolidation, which the emerging cohort of students will have to live up to.
And with a newly formed regulatory body, the Architecture and Urbanism Council, the profession is showing signs that it too is preparing for the challenges ahead. Francine Vaz, a sustainability consultant who completed her architectural studies in Rio, agrees: ‘This is indicative that things are going in a better direction.’ Unlike the UK’s three-part route to qualification, Brazil’s architecture students follow a continuous five-year course.
Undergraduates at FAUUSP are steered through several mandatory studios, but only four address building design: the first is introductory, the second studies infrastructure, the third patterns of inhabitation and the fourth ‘the urban equipment of public interest’. For Braga, engagement with the contextual reality means teaching students to think strategically about how design can bring diverse issues together; how to integrate responsiveness into their decisions, but also how to judge the merit of a strong parti, recognising the fact that a forceful concept will inevitably exclude some opportunities just as it frames and supports others.
Plans from Carlos Miller’s fifth-year project for an urban park in São Paulo. The moat separates the garden island from the streetscape and mitigates floodwater drainage from the mountains into the city’s canals
As the centrepiece of a storm-water reticulation strategy, final-year student Carlos Miller proposed a garden island across several São Paulo city blocks. A moat, which rises and falls according to mountain rainfall, fills the gap between the uniform street pattern and irregular island shape, and a rapid-transit bus route and cycleway cut through its middle.
The design concept rethinks the infrastructure of flood defences in a chain of detention ponds and canals, with associated public spaces that orchestrate encounters with the city’s storm-water runoff. By inviting nature back in, rather than suppressing it or concreting over it, the unashamedly geometric scheme articulates a less abusive, more sustainable relationship with the city’s hinterland.
A preoccupation with optimising the performance of public works can be seen in a group project produced by five students as part of their infrastructure studio coursework. A metro station near the university needed to function as a student hub and a transport interchange for the wider community. A ramped plane forms a rooftop parking lot for 2,000 cycles, with the balance of the hybrid programme (cafés, bus stops and service spaces) tucked beneath.
Such projects explore how architecture can connect different scales and styles of urban life, and provide a medium for articulation between city-making processes that have become estranged, argues Braga. ‘In my opinion, the biggest challenge of Brazilian design is to build a coherent character for the city.’