From São Houses to Our House

Event: The Architecture of Social Investment
Location: Center for Architecture, 12.10.10
Speakers: Jörg Stollmann & Rainer Hehl — Founders, urbaninform (Zürich); Fabienne Hoelzel — Project Coordinator, SEHAB (Secretary of Habitat) (São Paulo)
Moderator:
Andres Lepik — Curator, Museum of Modern Art
Introductions: Margaret O’Donoghue Castillo, AIA, LEED AP — 2011 AIANY President; Catherine Scharf — Consul, Head of the Cultural Department, Consulate General of Switzerland; Ann Marie Baranowski, AIA — Co-chair, AIANY Cultural Facilities Committee
Organizers: ThinkSwiss program, Swiss Confederation; Center for Architecture; AIANY Cultural Facilities Committee
Sponsors: Noah Foundation; Good Growth Fund; Global Exchange for Social Investment; Genisis Institute

Morumbi district’s Paraisópolis favela.

Courtesy Google Earth

Urbaninform, a nonprofit sustainable-investment association, is one of three web-based projects included in MoMA’s current exhibition “Small Scale, Big Change: New Architectures of Social Engagement.” Curator Andres Lepik’s introduction to “The Architecture of Social Investment” panel emphasized how the social ideals that were integral to 1920s Modern architecture, but later became subordinated to formal, theoretical, and other considerations, are currently being rediscovered by a generation of younger architects.

A statistical milestone that’s been mentioned in numerous contexts lately — that the world’s population has just passed the threshold of being 50% urban, probably an irreversible tipping point — lent context and urgency to this discussion of the relations among housing design, economics, and governance. By 2030, noted Rainer Hehl, founder of Zürich-based urbaninform, that percentage is likely to reach 61% by leading estimates, with half the urban population living in slums. To create adequate housing conditions by then, the world needs to produce 4,000 new units each hour. Inadequate housing and infrastructure are not limited to distant places, Hehl added, quoting Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-OH) on how the financial system’s cluster of failures (underwater mortgages, foreclosures, and evictions) make many Americans “squatters in [their] own homes.”

Considering the MoMA show’s subtitle, the shift in that final term is significant. An emphasis on investment in several senses (beginning but not ending with the financial) distinguishes “social business,” which returns the proceeds of investments locally, from either pro bono activities (i.e., traditional charitable work) or profit extraction to external corporate ownership. Hehl, co-founder Jörg Stollmann, and their colleagues view favelas (slums) as not only sites of informal construction, haphazard infrastructure, and concentrated poverty; they are a market that can develop and gain value over time through creatively structured enterprises, from the microfinance mechanisms of Nobel Peace Prize-winning economist Muhammad Yunus to a movable toilet that converts waste from a health hazard to a useful energy resource.

Swiss architect/urbanist Fabienne Hoelzel provided an overview of social housing and neighborhood regularization in São Paulo, where nearly a third of the population lives in “precarious circumstances” and luxury developments commonly bump elbows with improvised habitations (as in the Morumbi district’s Paraisópolis favela). Brazil’s largest city is “a tropical New York” marked by enormous diversity and a tendency for occupation to precede any form of planning. The municipal government is striving to reverse that sequence and supply badly needed sanitation and other services, but some of the social-housing forms replacing slums in massive, hasty urban-renewal endeavors — the “Brasilia blocks” or mid-rise “cingapuras” — struck Hehl as scarcely an improvement. The assumption that European-derived expertise is always appropriate, Lepik suggested, requires critique; Brazil’s unique Modernist tradition offers models that cities in China and Africa might usefully consider, and a cluster of approaching “mega-events” such as the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics will focus attention on a nation growing rapidly enough to be a global design and development laboratory.