As I noted in my last post, professional architectural design has recently come to be seen as a valid and potentially effective approach to improving informal settlements. I have long had an interest in the spatial and material qualities of built environment of informal settlements, and the recent shift in thinking about “design in favelas” presents an opportunity to expand the discussion to include architectural design as practiced by the residents themselves. As a point of reference, I would suggest that spatial constraint is typically the factor most at play in the process of architectural design in an urban informal settlement, and that its impact can be observed in every piece of the built environment.
Part of my architectural research in São Paulo focused on documenting stairs and semiprivate outdoor spaces, as these were common elements visible from the circulation spaces which showed a lot of individual expression. At first glance, designing a stair in an informal settlement might seem like a simple project. In fact, the number of factors that have to be addressed by the designer is surprisingly high. The first design decision would most likely be the selection of a location. In the spatially constrained context of an informal settlement, the builder may wish to encroach on an adjacent circulation path. These “public” spaces appear to be created and maintained by local agreement, although I have not investigated how the encroachment process occurs in that context.
But whether the stair was within the zone of a resident’s home, or encroaching in the circulation space, the guiding principle appeared to be to serve the purpose in the minimum space possible. Stairs were almost always narrow rather than wide, and within the great variety of stair configurations I documented, I rarely encountered full landings where a stair changed direction – typically, a triangular step or two would serve the purpose. As the photo above shows, the two angled treads appear to be designed to encroach as little as possible into the adjacent circulation space.
Fortunately, the best material for designing these freeform stairs is also one of the most inexpensive and readily available. Poured-in-place concrete can be formed and adapted to even the most awkward spaces, and is often used in ways that enhance communal spaces and allow for individual expression.
Informal settlements are typically in a state of physical change as families improve their structures and negotiate ways to increase their living space. As new structures are built or new access provided to an existing one, sometimes stairs have to be modified, and again the material’s physical qualities support this process. The complexity of stair forms result from the pressure to minimize the size of the stairs and their encroachment into circulation spaces, as well as to adapt to change over time.
Architectural design in the service of useful and creative solutions can be found everywhere people live. In favelas, barrios, and colonias, the very real dangers of unsound construction, crowding, and building on at-risk sites may overshadow our awareness of design elements like these. It’s unclear whether architectural upgrading projects will be more widely implemented in the future, but if so perhaps we will see more analysis of the fine-scale context of project sites and processes by which they are produced.