One of the things that most fascinates me about favelas are the wandering, uneven, narrow staircases that hold the buildings together, like twisted spines winding up the hillsides. Reminiscent, in use, of the front stoops of Chicago’s Brownstones or the steps of the Metropolitan Museum in New York, they are a place to gather, to gossip, a place for kids to play, stadium seating for street games and barbecues.

First day of stair painting in Cidade das Crianças favela. Captured by the Coletivo de Arte do Bamburral.

The staircases of favelas are a part of the street, a part of street life. Often, when someone opens their front or side door to yell for a neighbor they are yelling across a set of steps. Abundant in supply they are a collective space that is disappearing in the formal city.

In our high rise apartments the stairs are tucked away, formalized, a place for circulation in case of fire. Like so many planned spaces their function is predetermined and singular. There is no room for appropriation, for creativity, for inhabitance or for multiple and changing uses. The stairs of favelas are a living history, carved into space. If you ask long term residents about particular stairways they can often tell you who built them, how slick the former earth steps were when it rained, what the weather was like the day they were built, who has fallen down them, and the difference they have made in their particular location.

Like all stairs, those of favelas are built first because of the obvious necessity to ascend a steep incline. But this utilitarianism quickly becomes poetry as cloths lines are mounted and benches are squeezed in. It is this expansion, this local control and authority over collective space, this undefined and decidedly multiuse space that I most miss in our strictly defined business|commerce|residential districts.

Captured by the Coletivo de Arte do Bamburral

View From Above. Captured by the Coletivo de Arte do Bamburral.

Living in São Paulo, a city filled with contradictions, I spend just as much time in the highly formalized new business districts as in peripheral neighborhoods. For three hours between classes, with a book and a packed lunch, I wander the neat sidewalks of the “mixed” residential|business district of Itam Bibi. Where are the steps? I just want to read in public without having to pay R$5.00 for a coffee. This discontent and discomfort with gated glass high-rises, sidewalks without benches, and a looming sense that I am a place that is nowhere or perhaps everywhere is heightened by my time spent in favelas. This notion of steps (or lack their of) is a simple metaphor for how we understand and live in our cities. Where do opportunities to collectively intervene exist? What does an un-planned collective space look like when compared to a planned one? What are the values of spontaneity? Where is the poetry in public space?

7 thoughts on “The Formal City Needs More Stairs

  1. I think you are touching upon an important point and one that we, as designers, architects and planners, should acknowledge, learn from and apply in our practice: the programmatic flexibility and multivalence of these informal geographies. Similar to you Kirsten, it always surprised me how much spatial depth we find in these self-built environments. The struggle for space makes every centimeter count, creating from one narrow set of stairs, spaces for circulation, individual appropriation and collective use.

    Based on the points you highlight in this post, this is something that I really appreciated and admired in Arqui 5’s Stairology Project in the barrio of La Vega, Caracas (https://favelissues.com/2010/06/08/arqui5-stairology-in-la-vega-san-rafael-unido/).
    I am hoping Silvia- one of the FAVELissues writers- can speak more to this as she is one of the architects, but this is an upgrading project consisting of a network of stairs that integrate basic infrastructure (particularly with regards to water management), and whenever possible, public spaces for the community. In my opinion, this is great design that explores and I believe, enhances this depth and multivalence in the urban fabric. In this regard, with great design sensibility – ‘Stairology’ addresses the human scale, and directly-and quite beautifully- respond to the internal needs and values of residents…

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