Building Community

Ruy Ohtake works with a Brazilian favela to bring beauty, and a sense of ownership, to the neighborhood.

Ruy Ohtake


São Paulo,

Blame it on the press. What started as a misquote from the Brazilian architect Ruy Ohtake ended up forging an unusual architect-client relationship.

When a comment about the unseemly disparity between the better-off areas of São Paulo and places like Heliópolis—Brazil’s second largest favela, with over 120,000 inhabitants—was printed as though Ohtake had called Heliópolis itself ugly, angry community leaders challenged him to do something for their neighborhood. At nearly 74, Ohtake, who had just designed a luxury hotel in the city, stepped up to the plate.

Ohtake has a modernist’s passion for improving society, and he believes that beauty has the power to change the way we feel and act. His first assignment, in 2003, was a color study to liven up the favela’s streets. The residents felt empowered by the change, so the architect and community leaders moved on to more ambitious undertakings—a library, a recreational center, and a housing project. “Having someone like Ruy come into our community taught us that we also deserve what’s best, and not simply what is available just because we are in need,” says Antonia Cleide, the president of UNAS Heliópolis, a neighborhood association. “We, too, can strive for more.”

Ohtake, in turn, was encouraged by the growing community participation in the projects. “They regained their civic sense not by any concept handed to them by an architect, but by action, from results that they achieved while making their own environment more beautiful,” he says.

A favela has many socioeconomic layers, and Ohtake’s latest project was housing for the lowest tier—those living on wooden stilts above São Paulo’s canals. In 2009, the architect began a series of meetings with the residents, to discuss the allocation of space and the density of the final design.

Conjunto Habitacional Heliópolis, completed last fall, includes 11 towers, each with 18 units: four per floor, with two units on the ground floor for the disabled. The towers’ circular plan makes for cost-efficiency, but also for an interesting contrast with the cubist assemblage that usually characterizes favelas. At ground level, the curved walls of the redondinhos (“little round ones”; the term the residents use for the buildings) create the sense of play with which Ohtake likes to infuse all his projects—there are no corners and no orthogonal perspectives. Cars are kept outside the grounds, leaving the kids free to run about safely.

Ohtake is convinced that aesthetics can unite us, rich and poor, and inspire us to move forward. When asked about designing for economically and socially diverse communities, his simple comment is, “In the end, we are all Brazilians.”

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