Three years after its completion, Ursula Troncoso revisits Vigliecca & Associados’ linear park and housing in a run-down quarter of São Paulo
It may be hard to imagine a place in your home city that is difficult to reach, takes two hours to get to, in a neighborhood you’ve never heard of. São Paulo is an urban conglomerate that spreads for kilometres with a population of 20 million. On the south side of the city, two million people live in a low-density, endless sea of self-built two-storey houses with no urban infrastructure. Rich in springs and streams, this is where São Paulo’s two major reservoirs are located, Guarapiranga and Billings, in what is officially an environmental preservation area. The reality is that illegal settlements pollute the water daily with sewage and garbage.
The situation grew critical in 2009, when a high risk of flooding and landslides threatened the shacks at the bottom of the valley, where a stream had turned into an open sewer. The government of São Paulo, in partnership with the municipality, expropriated the homes of 200 families and relocated them to subsidised rented accommodation nearby. Hector Vigliecca, a Uruguayan architect based in São Paulo, was invited to develop replacement housing for the site by the construction company that won the public bid. Vigliecca and his team have worked on social housing projects since the 1970s. For this project, the guidelines were that it should contain 200 new housing units, public spaces as well as canalizing the existing stream. After three years of construction, Parque Novo Santo Amaro V was completed in 2012, next to the edges of the Guarapiranga Reservoir.
The ambition for the project was to solve a range of social and civic problems. As Vigliecca explained, ‘This new building should serve as an urban infrastructure.’ The idea was to connect the neighbourhood with clearly articulated routes through the buildings that also linked the different ground levels of the site, and provide a range of new collective facilities, including a skateboarding park, a playground, water features, commercial spaces, a community centre and recreation areas. In a place with no infrastructure, this was intended to urbanize and trigger a transformation of the vicinity.
Less than three years after its inauguration, I was going to visit Parque Novo Santo Amaro V with photographer Leonardo Finotti and filmmaker Antonio Brasiliano on a Friday. We were told only to visit with someone known to the locals, so when the social worker canceled, we were advised to postpone. The neighbourhood is at its most dangerous on weekends because that’s when drug dealers are most active. But when we visited on a sunny Monday, the place did not look as scary as this suggested. It was a quiet place, half asleep in the morning and mostly empty. Many of the residents were out. Elderly residents and mothers with young children were doing housework and going about their daily tasks.
The three housing blocks range in height from three to seven storeys depending on the variation of the ground level and include six different types of two or three bedroom units, arranged as single storey or duplex flats which vary in size from 50 to 70 square meters. Our guide, Vanessa Borges de Araujo, a social worker hired by the municipality to provide the community follow-up work, said when the residents were moved into these new units, they tried to preserve their social ties. “We believed they should live near their former neighbours, people they already knew and had trustworthy relationships with’.
The intention is that the residents will be able to buy the flats with the help of the government. At the presentation of his new book on his social housing projects, Vigliecca spoke about the importance of belonging, and of bonding residents to a place. ‘The only way that a person, living in a slum, feels like a citizen,’ said Vigliecca, ‘is by causing him to love the place that he inhabits’.
‘Pedestrians has been injured due to high-speed driving, people had been mugged and the use and ales of drugs were increasing’
We were met by José, president of the residents association — or future president, because they are waiting on a regulation to pass to recognise the housing blocks as a condominium. José was chosen as a spokesperson by the tenants who want to put a fence around the buildings and enclose the inner streets and walkways, making redundant the two pedestrian metal bridges that link the communal facilities to the surrounding neighbourhood. Other demands by the residents, who pay monthly fees but do not yet own the flats, include the creation of an entrance lobby and the hiring of security guards.
Angela Maria Estevan, another social worker monitoring the re-occupation of the homes told us that pedestrians had been injured due to high speed driving in the internal streets, people had been mugged and the use and sale of drugs were increasing, which is why residents wanted to restrict access to the apartment blocks. ‘The recreational area attracted people from other neighbourhoods and the pancadão [illegal parties] started happening every weekend. The residents were not willing to tolerate this any longer, so they sealed the open area up and turned it into a garage for cars”, Estevan explained.
‘The tenants were keen to put a fence around the buildings and enclose the inner streets and walkways’
Walking around, the quality of the public space is notable with its small squares, walkways, trees, tables and benches. But as you move away from the heart of the premises, the shared spaces become increasingly dilapidated and deserted. The most successful public areas have some level of private management and income for upkeep, while the public spaces managed by the State were going from bad to worse. Those that are better maintained include the football field, which belongs to a club that receives a monthly rent from anyone who uses it; as well as the party room and the barbecue area, which are locked and require a reservation as well as a small fee.
The street level below the housing units was intended to accommodate small shops to be run by residents and some parking spaces, as well as providing a covered open space that would serve for community events. But according to Ligia Miranda, the project coordinator within the municipal Housing Bureau, this, too, did not go to plan: ‘The locals were not interested in taking over the small shops. Those who had run local businesses before the expropriation did not return,’ she says. Whether the spaces were not suitable for their business, or the rental price was too high, no one is sure. Whatever the case, the plan to provide municipal community services in the retail units was never enacted, and these spaces remain vacant and closed to this day.
The water feature, a long and thin pool designed to deliver clean spring water to the residents, was disabled when the insufficient flow from the spring led to stagnant water, causing outbreaks of insects and disease. Reflecting on the project, Neli Shimizu, who coordinated the water feature within the architectural firm, says, ‘In fact, it was built exactly as we designed,’ but admitted they, ‘did not follow what happened during the process of post-occupation’. The architect’s involvement could have helped to mitigate problems that arose after the complex was inhabited.
Vigliecca tried to convert sprawl into city, and give these former residents of an ‘urbanless’ zone the feeling of living in an urban environment, with all the benefits this brings. The difficulty, as one of the organisers of the recently published book, Luis Recamán, reflected, is that this population has never lived in a city, ‘This population doesn’t have memories of the countryside or the city to be re-activated, because they are second or third generation urban deprived.’ So foreign was this kind of living, the prefect asked the architects to furnish one of the flats as a showroom, to show future residents how to inhabit the space. This not only highlights the inability of the State to keep up with the rapid unplanned growth of informal settlements, but the architect’s difficulty in understanding the needs of this population and the informal repertoire of the self-built city.
Looking at photographs of those shacks in 2008, it’s clear that Parque Novo Santo Amaro V is unquestionably an improvement. ‘When I first entered the apartment I was going to live in, I was really excited,’ says current resident Dona Maria. ‘Now, when the rain begins, I feel relief. I feel safe in my home.’ Behind closed doors, the job is done; people now live with dignity. But outside, there are lessons to be learned and still much to do. I was left with a thought shared by Vigliecca, borrowed from Rabbi Tarphon: ‘It is not your responsibility to finish the work of perfecting the world, but you are not free to desist from it either.’