By Carissa Lim, Paul Marett, and Lindsay Wong
Finished in 1952, the Pedregulho housing development was intended to be an all-inclusive living space for low-income government workers. Designed by Affonso Eduardo Reidy and initiated and directed by his wife, Carmen Portinho, it is seen as one of the first and most important pieces of Brazilian modern architecture. It combines ideals of Le Corbusier, such as the free plan, free façade, and pilotis, with the free forms of Brazilian modernism.
During this period in Brazil, the post-war leftist government used architectural experiments for social change and larger political reform. As such, Pedregulho’s primary purpose was to house families of government employees whose salaries were not high enough to buy or rent an apartment in the city. To live in Pedregulho, a resident had to work for the local government, incentivizing the position to those who might not otherwise consider it. However, inhabitants had to follow certain requirements. Before moving in, families had to be checked for diseases and agree to keep Pedregulho “clean and pure.” The residents also had to allow periodic inspections by employees from the Popular Housing Department, who would request that inhabitants leave if they lied or failed to abide by the living regulations.
The desire to improve the lives of the government workers is reflected in the architecture itself. Reidy sought to elevate the government workers, physically and symbolically. The body of the undulating building rests on pilotis, raising it above the buildings around it. Furthermore, the building looks out on the city of Rio de Janeiro, allowing the government workers to see the city that they are serving. The architect also sought to elevate the quality of life of Rio’s government workers by creating a space for them to be able to live and relax in a better environment.
In addition to its four apartment blocks, Pedregulho also contained an elementary school, gymnasium, swimming pool with dressing rooms, health center, playground and day care center.
Reidy and Portinho also introduced a laundromat with washing machines, hoping that it would give the women more free time and prevent them from hanging clothes from the windows. To encourage adoption, Reidy eliminated washtubs from the apartments and each tenant was given two kilograms of detergent annually as “a gift from the city.” However, hand washing clothes provided the women with the opportunity to socialize, something that they valued over the time saved from using the machines. As a result, the women chose to hand wash their clothes in the pool.
This story opens up an important discussion over the architect’s role in housing complexes, and in social architecture in general. Without proper research and information, architects can do more harm than good by designing spaces that are undesirable or unwanted. It also highlights the issue of designers attempting to impose upper middle class values onto a lower class. By assuming that these government workers wanted swimming pools and washing machines, Reidy deliberately disregarded the culture and the desires of the people living there. According to Dr. Lauro Cavalcanti, a professor at Rio’s Industrial Design School and author of When Rio was Modern; A Guide to Architecture 1928-1960, “the desire to improve the poor by placing them in sophisticated residential spaces clashed with the architect’s ignorance of the taste and social skills of the inhabitants.”
Over time, government support for Pedregulho disintegrated. Once the capital moved to Brasilia in 1960, and new housing for government workers was built there, Pedregulho became a footnote in history and its residents were largely forgotten. However, today the government has decided to reclaim ownership of the facility and has sponsored R$10.5 million in renovations. Led by construction company CEHAB, the first round of renovations were finished in December of 2013 much to the satisfaction of its residents, who for the first time since its construction now have ownership of their apartments. However, it will be a long time before Pedregulho is fully functional again. Even today its facilities remain abandoned and the secondary housing structures are still in need of major renovations.
Despite the slow pace of renovations, the residents are optimistic. Our tour guide during our visit told us that he has lived at the housing complex for over fifty years and loves living there. When asked if he would change anything about Pedregulho, he said that the only thing that he would ask for is more money to be devoted to community events or housekeeping, showing a clear confidence in the eventual revival of the facilities located on the property.
Pedregulho, when it was first built, was designed to project to the world an image of Brazil as a country that cares for its citizens, especially those who devote their life to government work. As Pedregulho fell apart, it became easier to, rather than hold it up as a paragon, disown it completely in favor of the shiny new capital in Brasilia. However, after a half century of neglect, Rio’s government has finally decided to reengage the property and is aiding its residents in renovations. Now, finally, Rio is putting the needs of Pedregulho’s residents first and giving the buildings the renovations they so severely need.
Cavalcanti, Lauro. When Brazil Was Modern: Guide to Architecture, 1928-1960. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2003. 267.