A Penn State VR studio looks to bridge the gap between informal settlements and formal design expertise.
By Zach Mortice
Renowned for their ad hoc flexibility, material economy, and compositional resourcefulness, Rio de Janeiro’s favelas can be treasure troves for urbanists. Unplanned, unsanctioned, and often unmapped, they mutate (adding a story, turning a ground floor into a shop, switching from sheet metal to concrete as soon as owners come into a few more Brazilian reals) at a pace unseen in the affluent global north. But these communities are located far away from most of the world’s stock of urban design expertise.
Last spring, to bridge this divide, Penn State landscape architecture professor Timothy Baird and architecture professor José Duarte taught a new studio that engaged students in the study of one Brazilian favela via virtual reality (VR) technology. The studio, which paired architecture students with landscape architecture students, posited VR as a proxy for expensive site visits. “Developing countries can’t always afford consultants because of the distance and difficulty to travel,” says Baird, who recently became chair of the landscape architecture department at Cornell University.
The virtual reality environment in which these students designed was constructed after Duarte and a crew of Brazilian students traveled to Rio de Janeiro’s Santa Marta favela before the semester began. They took thousands of still images, 360-degree videos and photos, and collected satellite and aerial photos with the aid of a balloon-mounted GoPro. They also interviewed residents to find out their thoughts and concerns about their built environment. Stateside, Duarte stitched these images together into the VR model with computer software.
Penn State students were invited to design interventions in this VR environment, which they could experience with headsets, immersive wall projections, and via smartphone. With the aid of some canny fund-raising (at the outset of the semester, there was no guarantee of traveling abroad), nine students were able to travel to Rio to compare notes on how well the virtual matched up to the actual.
The Santa Marta favela is perhaps most notable for the Spike Lee-produced Michael Jackson video “They Don’t Care About Us” filmed there (against the wishes of the Brazilian government) in 1996. The New York Times reporter who showed up to cover the making of the video found raw sewage and drug dealers at checkpoints, with drug cartels providing security for Jackson. Santa Marta, which is relatively close to the city’s main tourist sites and is connected to the rest of Rio by way of a funicular, is often described as being safer and more stable than other favelas. It was the first such community to be “pacified” by quasi-military state security forces in late 2008, when the Red Command crime syndicate and others were ousted. Duarte and Baird chose Santa Marta because of its relative safety, and because it’s a prototypical example of an informal settlement that has both urban and topographic diversity. Even today, without basic access to the city’s electrical, sewage, and water systems, Santa Marta is largely disavowed and ignored by the city’s official power structure. “These places don’t even show up in city maps,” says Duarte.
Baird expressed surprise at the quality of the VR environments that Duarte created. “You can look down and see the pavement below your feet,” he says. “It was an amazingly high [level of] definition and detail you could immerse yourself in.” He was especially pleased that VR allowed his students to share their designs with favela residents in a virtual, site-specific context. “We can take that into the community and show them some basic ideas of how things might look.”
But there are important limits to VR’s fidelity in representing urban space. Beyond removing nonvisual senses from the equation (Duarte did record some ambient sounds of the favela to add back into their model), the dramatic topography of the land didn’t quite translate, nor did the tight and compressed sense of scale.
The students’ proposals range from workhorse “infrastructural landscapes” that can deal with the favela’s lack of utility services and smaller “urban acupuncture” interventions, Baird says. Some projects tackled larger neighborhood-scaled plans for growth and development.
Hannah Thomas, a recent Penn State landscape architecture graduate who traveled to Rio with her classmates, designed (with Elena Vazquez) an axial set of “perpendicular fingers running through the community,” she says; a green axis of public landscape and a commercial and infrastructural axis. These zones would be defined by linkages of small interventions (pocket parks, renovated buildings converted to cultural or touristic use) that would draw in money, visibility, and resources as a way to integrate Santa Marta with the surrounding city.
And like Thomas’s project, the studio’s explicit goal is to cultivate integration with the rest of Rio. But this has to be carefully modulated. As Duarte and Baird acknowledge, lower-income communities often take pride in their self-reliance and autonomy. The most effective design solutions would nurture this identity while still creating more porous borders.
“I don’t know if it’s [about wanting] the more formal city to come to them, but they think they have a lot to offer to the formal city,” Thomas says.
When Baird and his students met with community members, they got a surprising sense of how years of self-sufficiency had shaped their identity. The most confusion came from the Americans’ insistence on using polite euphemisms to avoid what they perceived as stigma. “They were adamant: ‘Stop calling us an informal settlement. We’re a favela and we’re proud of it,’” says Baird. “We looked a little silly.”
Residents also expressed disappointment that the designers contacted them mostly after they had created their proposals. This was because (as an initial prototype) the professors didn’t originally intend for anyone to come back to Santa Marta for the studio. The next time this studio is taught, Baird and Duarte say, they’ll get resident input up front, though Duarte is not sure they’ll return to Rio de Janeiro’s favelas because the security situation has deteriorated as the world’s gaze from the 2016 Olympics has faded.
Next time they study informal settlements, Duarte says, they’ll use computational models of the favela that can simulate its growth and development. “We know exactly what the rules are. We know how people decide where to build their houses, how they choose a location, how the shape of the house is determined, [how] topography and the urban context [goes] into account,” he says. With this kind of model, researchers can alter parameters to vary access to sunlight and ventilation, for example, asking how the urban morphology would change as a result.
Duarte, who has studied informal settlements across the globe, believes in their power to model emergent patterns of more sustainable resource consumption in the developing world, and in the ability for contemporary technology to decode how they work. “They are not a problem,” he says. “They are a solution with many problems.”
Zach Mortice is a Chicago-based design journalist who focuses on landscape architecture and architecture. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram.