in English

The favela and its moment

UPPs and infrastructure investments seem to be the last nail in the coffin for the old sweeping favela-removal projects. While so often seen as problems with no solution, favelas can become part of the solution to the city's problems

Bruno Carvalho

Translated by Flora Thomson-Deveaux

 versão em português

For the Chinese of the Ming Dynasty, Rio de Janeiro’s favelas might have seemed safe and desirable places: like many others in the East, they believed that evil spirits only moved in straight lines. In sinuous alleyways, therefore, one would need not fear cursed apparitions.

Supernatural qualities are not the only reasons to see favelas as a viable urban model, deserving of large-scale infrastructural investments. Places with well-known and serious problems, they can also be part of the solution for a number of contemporary challenges for cities. As long as they are not approached from a picturesque or judgmental angle, that is. Favelas, after all, are a direct product of modern urbanism, and their history is intertwined with that of Brazil.

During the height of the Ming Dynasty, at the start of the 16th century, the largest and most imposing urban centers were not to be found in Europe. Despite the risk of undesirable spirits, great cities like Beijing, Vijayanagar in India and Tenochtitlan in Mexico were crisscrossedwith straight roads. Cities like Paris were cramped and modest in comparison. The medieval model prevailed, with its tangles of narrow streets.

It is hard to imagine how humiliating it might have been for European travelers to come across these far-flung metropolises, so much more civilized and sophisticated than their own. Some tried to mask the foreigners’ superiority, and wrote their reports in tones of incredulity. Bernal Díaz de Castillo, recalling their arrival in the capital of the Aztec empire, writes that the Spanish came across things they had “never heard, never seen, never even dreamed of.”

During the Renaissance and the age of exploration,Greco-Roman influence also spread itself to urban planning and architecture. It is not surprising, then, that Greco-Roman precedents were at the heart of grand plans to reform European cities. Here, the straight line dominates. In the reorganization of Rome, Pope Sixtus V sought to connect the city’s principal churches through new avenues. These routes would facilitate the flow of pilgrims and goods, serving capitalist, administrative, and spiritual needs alike.

The art historian Samuel Edgerton, professor emeritus at Williams College, speaks of a “synonymy between moral and geometric rectitude… ingrained in the Western mind.” As he points out, Thomas More believed that geometric urban planning freed man from temptation.We cannot discard the idea that this can be related to judgments of favelas as frightening lairs, permanently under suspicion. From the root “reg-,” meaning “to move in a straight line,” we take words like correct, regal, rectify and rule. Nothing that we usually associate with shacks crowded together on the slopes of a mountain.


Also in the 16th century, the foundation of Spanish cities in the Americas was marked by rectilinear plans where each detail was determined by the Crown’s Leyes de Indias (Laws of the Indies). Parallel streets and right-angled corners abound in the historical centers of cities like Quito, Lima, and Bogotá. In Brazil, things happened very differently. The Portuguese, more concerned with controlling the seas than the dimensions of their plazas, were prone to a certain “laxness” when it came to city planning. The term is Sérgio Buarque de Holanda’s, from the chapter of titled “The Sower and the Tiler.” The image says it all. A colonial map of Quito shows blocks like neatly laid tiles. A map of Rio de Janeiro in the same period looks like one of the colonial mountain mining towns of Minas Gerais, or many modern-day favelas: constructions and roads crop up in apparent disorder, fruits of a process that, at first glance, would seem to be ruled by chance.

The development of favelas, however, occurs neither through randomness nor happenstance. During the Empire, urban poverty was concentrated in crowded tenements. Beginning in the 1870s, new laws attempt to push these dwellings to the city’s peripheries. Such measures intensified under the Republic, declared in 1889. A worker in early 20th-century Rio builds a shack near the port so that he may be close to his job, because of inadequate public transportation and unaffordable rent in central areas. In other words, favelas grow as a direct response to external pressures. There is a wealth of bibliography on the subject, including books by scholars like Alba Zaluar, Lícia do Prado Valladares and Lilian Fessler Vaz. We know, for example, that veterans returning from the Canudos War settled on the hill they called “Favela,” known today as the Morro da Providência. And that some former inhabitants of the Cabeça do Porco, a famous tenement destroyed by Mayor Barata Ribeiro in 1893, had done the same.


Over the next decades, the proliferation of the favelas emerged as the flip side of urban modernism, with its grand monumental avenues. The motto of Brazil’s republican flag was inspired by French positivism. Also of French extraction was the ambitious reform led by Mayor Pereira Passos (1902-1906), the centerpiece of which was the Avenida Central (today, Avenida Rio Branco). In Baudelaire’s Paris, Baron Haussmann had introduced a series of boulevards between 1853 and 1870. These reforms became a major watershed in the modern history of cities, a model followed throughout the world.

The straight line arrives in the heart of the nation’s capital relatively late, but with devastating force. Buenos Aires, the eternal rival, already had its own grandiose avenues. Rio de Janeiro could not be left behind, and Pereira Passos spared no effort in his reform of the city. The episode has been closely studied by historians like Jaime Benchimol from the Fundação Oswaldo Cruz and Jeffrey Needell from the University of Florida. According to the latter, the construction of the Avenida Central – slicing through the urban fabric of old Rio – led to the forced removal of a tenth of its inhabitants. Soon enough, precarious dwellings began sprouting in swampy areas and on the slopes of Rio’s hills.

In the best belle époque spirit, the pompous avenue was intended to impress foreigners. But it was the favelas that, very early on, captivated illustrious travelers. The Franco-Swiss poet Blaise Cendrars, his countryman Le Corbusier and the Italian futurist Filippo Marinetti visited the hills of Rio de Janeiro during the 1920s. Whether for the contrast of their poverty, their architectural improvisations or the strangeness of their day-to-day, life on the morro attracted tourists well before the advent of today’s “Favela Tours.”

When Marinetti decides to see the Favela Hill, in May 1926, the unusual outing becomes news. The writer went up accompanied by policemen, residents and a press entourage. Among them were Assis Chateaubriand, the future media magnate, and the young Rodrigo Melo Franco de Andrade, who would head up the National Historical and Artistic Patrimony Service. The next day, the Jornal do Brasil was somewhat uneasy, noting that the futurist “visited the favela and was dazzled.” Marinetti had opened his talk at the Lírico Theater talking about the favelas. He was booed and interrupted, which was not uncommon when the Mussolini enthusiast spoke in public.

In Velocità Brasiliane, about his trip to Brazil, Marinetti emphasizes the contrast between landscapes. On the avenues, “the trumpeting dynamism of cars loaded with glare and solar eels, the whole a machine of well-oiled Futurist velocities.” And a hundred meters away, “the primitive almost prehistoric Morro de la Favela [sic],” home to “antisocial negros… staring down from above at the insolent speeding riches of the streets.” Mutatis mutandis, we have an embryonic version of the hill-asphalt division that would dominate much of the conversation about the topic in the so-called “divided city.” We are also not far off from the classic paradigm of the “two Brazils,” made famous in the 1950s by the French sociologist Jacques Lambert.

For many, the favelas represented what was most primitive, backward, dirty, dangerous, and poor in the capital. The opposite of what had been aspired to: civilization, modernity, order, and progress. These categories had evident socio-racial implications. The hills began to be perceived as places where only blacks lived, even though their populations were quite racially mixed. In the press, favelas had already been nicknamed “evil villages.” Going up their slopes, according to the irreverent magazine Fon-Fon, was “like getting a passport to the cemetery.” This back in the 1920s, well before the drug traffickers of the Red Command or the caveirões of the military police, armored vehicles emblazoned with skulls.

So the shame and discomfort produced by foreigners’ fascination – what is it that these gringos see in those dangerous, dirty places? – is nothing new. Hardly interested in the question, the organizing committee for the 2016 Rio Olympics thought it would be best to mask the presence of favelas in the city’s landscape. In a film shown to the International Olympic Committee in 2009, the favelas are gone. As if with a magic wand, the desire to remove the poor population from the heart of the city is fulfilled.


If favelas always had their detractors, by the 1920s a current of outsider enthusiasts was forming. In the interwar period, avant-garde thinkers disillusioned with the values of the belle époque come to see the primitive as a virtue, not a flaw. The hills of Rio de Janeiro present a perfect opportunity for artists tuned into the latest trends, looking for a more “authentic” Brazil. In 1924, the Brazilwood Manifesto by Oswald de Andrade saw poetry where others saw problems: “Poetry exists in facts. The saffron and ochre shacks in the green of the favela, under the Cabralian-blue sky, are aesthetic facts.”

In his preface to the book Brazilwood, the coffee grower, writer and patron of the arts Paulo Prado says that Oswald “discovered” his own land, “dazzled,” in Paris. In the City of Lights with its straight boulevards, the avant-garde lived in bohemian Montmartre, with its slopes and alleys. The poet from São Paulo was not alone in looking towards “aesthetic facts” that had little interest to Brazilian elites. His talented companion, Tarsila do Amaral, realized – as she observes in a letter to her parents – that Parisians had gotten tired of their own art. The painting “Morro da Favela” dates from her stay in France, depicting an idyllic space of vibrant colors, inhabited exclusively by blacks. Exposed in the Gallery Percier in Paris, it enchanted Blaise Cendrars. On his first visit to Brazil, in 1924, the influential writer and friend of the painter had insisted on visiting the locale.

Nearly four decades later, the place of Rio’s favelas in the conception of a tropical utopia would be illuminated on cinema screens. Once again, the foreign enchantment with the exotic seems fundamental: the French director Marcel Camus made the classic Black Orpheus (1959), which introduces the world to bossa nova and the lovely views from the Morro da Babilônia. A Portuguese-language film had never been so popular outside Brazil. More than forty years later, City of God comes close, with a flat, planned favela – violent and definitively non-utopian, but mythic in its own way.

But let’s not put the cart before the horse. Not every modernist found the favelas fascinating. There was a chasm between the visions of modern artists and those of urban planners. In a study of engineers in Rio de Janeiro during the belle époque, Maria Alice Rezende de Carvalho, professor of sociology and politics at PUC-Rio, shows a desire to “govern with straight lines.” In general, these architects and urbanists were not in step with Oswald, Tarsila, or Cendrars’ urban sensibilities. And, speaking of carts and quadrupeds, Le Corbusier himself, a sort of high priestof modern urbanism, does not mince words in his defense of the Cartesian-Hausmannian legacy. In the new world being unveiled amidst the roaring twenties, there was no room for slanting alleyways, nor for the supposedly slow pace of morro life.

The book The City of Tomorrow, from 1925, opens with an image that makes the author’s sympathies very clear:

Man walks in a straight line because he has a goal and knows where he is going. He has made up his mind to reach some particular place, and he goes straight to it.

The pack-donkey meanders along, meditates a little in his scatterbrained and distracted fashion, he zigzags in order to avoid the larger stones, or to ease the climb, or to gain a little shade; he takes the line of least resistance.

For Le Corbusier, the future belonged to geometric plans and automobiles, in all their functionality and efficiency. And, to a great extent, he was proved right. It was clear which way the wind was blowing, and the Franco-Swiss followed it. The path to modernity would not tolerate the donkey’s lack of objectivity, the winding roads of the medieval city or the sociability of the sidewalks. Mort de la rue! proclaimed the architect of the expressway. Streets, with their pedestrians blocking traffic, primitive carnivals and chit-chatting neighbors, were an obsolete concept.

In this model, favelas were an obvious hitch. Even so, Le Corbusier was drawn to them when he visited Brazil in 1929. The architect, whose trip was supported by Paulo Prado (like Blaise Cendrars’), also goes up the Morro da Providência. The visit produces sketches of the scenery and a report that emphasizes technical aspects of the residences: “spaces, though scanty, are quite efficient, windows surprisingly open […]; houses well installed.” Le Corbusier, the champion of the straight line, bows before the “magisterial dignity” of the place.

By then, however, the favelas’ fate seemed to have already been sealed. They would not be part of the city of tomorrow. Before the use of digital techniques to hide them from promotional videos, the strategy used to be more permanent, and more painful: forced removal. Much less used by Rio’s state government since the return of democracy, the practice is still employed by other states and municipalities. In Rio de Janeiro, the idea began to materialize in the grandiose plans of a contemporary and rival of Le Corbusier: the urbanist Alfred Agache.


Agache, one of the founders and secretary-general of the pioneering French Society of Urbanists, arrives in Brazil radiating prestige. He had been invited to remodel the capital by the mayor Antônio Prado Júnior, who came into office in late 1926. Prado Júnior had been chosen for the position by President Washington Luís, although his administrative experience was limited to the presidency of the Club Athlético Paulistano. Trained as an engineer like most of the other mayors of the period, he came from a rich, traditional family in São Paulo. He was Paulo Prado’s brother, and his father was Antônio Prado, a former senator and mayor of São Paulo. His passion for automobiles probably drew him to the modern urbanists. When he disembarks in Rio, Le Corbusier is received with great enthusiasm by the mayor, which, due to Agache’s presence, causes some tension.

Tasked with extending, remodeling, and “beautifying” the capital, Agache soon sets up an office in Rio. From the start, his projects were warmly received amongst Brazilians eager for modernity and global recognition. The first edition of the magazine O Cruzeiro, in November 1928, highlights the ideas of “Professor Agache.” Observing that the plan would take 50 years to be realized in its entirety, the article recognizes “the extraordinarily complex task of setting down the guidelines within which the Brazilian capital will develop from now until the future.” And it does not spare praises for the “modern and monumental criteria adopted,” celebrating the fact that the “sketches of the magnificent capital of tomorrow” foretold a city “worthy of the hyper-civilized humanity of the 20th century.”

Agache’s Rio would have rigid zoning laws and almost complete social segregation. Despite taking interest in the causes behind favelas and in issues like property rights, the urbanist reproduces the cliché of “a semi-nomadic population, completely lacking the basic rudiments of hygiene.” The hint was taken: forcible removal should be employed without further ceremony. In a later passage from the city plans published in 1930, Agache leaves no room for interpretation: the favelas are “leprous,” a problem only solved by “total destruction.”

The drastic prescription was related to legitimate concerns, such as sanitation, but also reflected a moral and aesthetic judgment. And it pleased those setting out on the first serious campaign against the favelas, led by João Mattos Pimenta. A realtor and member of the influential Rotary Club, Pimenta supported the Frenchman from the start and had made a film about the favelas, calling them an “aesthetic leprosy.” The adulatory article in O Cruzeiro about Agache’s plans was written by Mattos Pimenta. The reader, already having noticed how small the circles of influential people were, mustn’t exclaim that the world is small: we are looking at a concentration of power and income.

Among Agache’s proposals was an old idea – that of building an avenue perpendicular to Rio Branco, this one even longer and more monumental. O Cruzeiro itself explains how, in this battle for the future of the city, the straight line takes on not only functional but also metaphorical significance. This is how the magazine’s inaugural editorial begins:

We place in the reader’s hands the most modern of Brazilian magazines. Our older siblings were born amidst the demolitions of colonial Rio, through whose rubble civilization traced the straight line of the Avenida Rio Branco: a straight line from the past to the future.

The future arrived – but, as so often happens in Brazil, it dribbled around the predictions. After Getúlio Vargas’ rise to power in 1930, Agache’s ambitious plans would be shelved. Even so, his reports influenced urban legislation and a number of later interventions.


The idea of a new avenue, to show the world how far Brazil had come, only got off the ground during World War II. The first name suggested – Avenida 10 de Novembro – commemorated the anniversary of the coup that installed the dictatorial Estado Novo in 1937.  In the end they went with Avenida Presidente Vargas. Getúlio Vargas needed nothing else to be convinced of the project’s importance. Significantly modified from the original plans, and overseen by Henrique Dodsworth, the new straight line cutting across the city brought about the destruction of more than 500 buildings. It plowed over a vibrant and traditional public square, the Praça Onze, as well as the baroque church of São Pedro dos Clérigos, a rarity with its rounded nave.

The media, tightly controlled by the regime, were ecstatic about the avenue. “One of the most important in the universe,” “Second amongst the largest avenues in the world” – blared the headlines the week it was inaugurated, aptly on Brazil’s Independence Day (September 7), 1944. With its width of nearly a hundred meters, it continues to be an important connection between the Zona Norte and Rio’s Centro. The Morro da Providência was in the way, however, like several other hills leveled over the course of the century.

On hearing of plans that were circulating during Agache’s stay, the samba composer Sinhô laments the demolition of the Providência – at that time, still known as the Morro da Favela. His early protest song, “A Favela Vai Abaixo” (“The Favela’s Going Down”), recorded by Francisco Alves, became an enormous hit in the late ‘20s. According to the journalist Vagalume, Sinhô’s song managed to soften the relevant authorities and thwart the destruction of the Favela. Grande Otelo and Herivelto Martins, authors of the classic samba “Praça Onze,” eulogizing the demolished square, were not so lucky.

Today, with an “open-air museum” and a pacifying police unit (UPP), Providência Hill may still be seen by many as an “aesthetic leprosy.” The avenue running by the hill – the height of an authoritarian vision of modern urbanism – does not often hear praises to its beauty, either. Lúcio Costa called it “the world’s ugliest.” It is true that the avenue’s architecture, with its severe buildings recalling a Nazi-fascist aesthetic, does not follow the precepts of Costa and his modernist colleagues. Despite being profoundly influenced by Le Corbusier, this group – including Oscar Niemeyer – revolutionized Brazilian architecture without simply mimicking what was in vogue in the rest of the world.

Once again, the official bet had been on the wrong horse. The Estado Novo’s avenue, with its pretensions of astronomical grandeur, did not put Brazil on the map. That was accomplished by another project from the Vargas era, which sparked suspicion of the regime’s hard line. Costa, Niemeyer, Carlos Leão, Affonso Reidy, Ernani Vasconcellos, and Jorge Machado Moreira all contributed to the innovative project for the Ministry of Education and Culture – today, the Gustavo Capanema Building. Beginning with a famous exhibition in MoMA in 1943, Brazil Builds, this new generation of Brazilian architects would make their mark on the international stage.

These architects frequently incorporated sinuous lines into their designs, from Niemeyer’s Pampulha Art Museum to Reidy’s Pedregulho residential complex and Burle Marx’s landscapes. These experiments would come to a head in the construction of Brasília, where even the “wings” of the Monumental Axis curve, defying the implacable straight line. But, just as there are Ming and Qing dynasties, there are curves and then there are curves. Those in Brasília’s roads, for example, aimed to ease the flow of traffic at pedestrians’ expense. The modernist urbanists and architects would continue to resist traditional forms of urban life. And the favelas were still shut out. In On Architecture, from 1962, Lúcio Costa does not look kindly on the idea that they had become an unavoidable part of the urban panorama – any solution to him is viable, except for the urbanization of the favela.


Since then much has changed, for better and for worse. In Rio de Janeiro, the UPPs are starting to give the residents of some favelas the ability to come and go as they please, creating the possibility of imagining a daily life free from the pressures  of drug lords and arbitrary policing. Despite the persistence of certain concerns, like abusive searches, there has been undeniable progress. And since “pacification” alone cannot be enough, programs seeking to integrate the favelas into the urban network are getting traction. In the wake of the Favela-Bairro (“slum to neighborhood”) projects in the nineties, a series of recent investments attempts to compensate historic neglect.

Some have been criticized for their public-relations slant, including the Morro Dona Marta funicular, the elevator on the Morro do Cantagalo and the cable car system at the Complexo do Alemão, the inauguration of which was attended by President Dilma Rousseff. This last project cost R$210 million (USD $115 million) and sparked a healthy debate about the cost/benefit relationship of the system. But such discussions should not be reduced to numbers. Modern infrastructure and tourist attractions, in places where drug trafficking so recently reigned with deadly force, have incalculable value.

Together with the community-outreach UPP Social units, these investments seem to be the last nail in the coffin of the old large-scale removal projects, aggressively undertaken under the administration of Carlos Lacerda (1960-1965). Such interventions also deflate the dangerous idealization of the spontaneity and supposed purity of the favelas, the tired litany that the morros are “closer to heaven.” The favelas’ current problems are urgent, decidedly unglamorous and will not fix themselves – from trash collection to high tuberculosis levels, from uncontrolled expansion to the lack of property titles.


On one hand, there now seems to be a working consensus amongst the professionals in the area about what needs to be done. On the other, the favelas are still an embarrassment for many, seen as a stain on the landscape. Then there are those who pay their taxes on time and think that these public investments amount to populism or government handouts. But there may be a better target for these discontents.

If both favelas and monumental avenues can be taken as ugly, what about Barra da Tijuca? The neighborhood of up-and-coming Rio residents looks like so many others across the world: car dependent, full of mansions or skyscrapers putting on modern airs, all spread throughout spacious and enclosed private condominiums. Their names tend to be in foreign languages, and often promise idyllic landscapes: Riviera dei Fiori, Golden Green, Crystal Lake. Just like Brasília, Barra was designed by Lúcio Costa. But unlike Brasília, Barra’s architecture is generally imitative and garish.

There may be no accounting for taste. But the cost of this model of expansion can and should be debated. These new, exclusive condominiums – which now take Miami as their model, not New York or Paris – demand cars. Low density and the sense of being close to nature are among their selling points. Yet recent studies indicate that sprawl has a high hidden cost, which we all pay. So says Pamela Blais in Perverse Cities: Hidden Subsidies, Wonky Policy, and Urban Sprawl.

Blais shows how these spread-out developments receive a series of direct or indirect subsidies. It is more expensive, for example, to distribute infrastructure and energy in American suburbs than in dense Manhattan neighborhoods. This cost is not completely passed on to the consumer. And nobody can complain that people in the favelas do not pay their light bill. According to the most recent studies, over half of the illegal hookups in Rio de Janeiro are from non-favela residents. Besides, these irregularities are now being regulated by the UPPs.

Even without comparative studies in Brazil, we can suppose that Blais’ analysis holds up when we look at Barra compared to Copacabana or the favelas. On top of this, there are the consequences of automobile dependency. Cars pollute, and the air also belongs to bicyclists, pedestrians, and those who commute on public transit. Cars rely on the maintenance of public roads and parking facilities, frequently financed (directly or indirectly) by non-car owners.

So, to turn Lúcio Costa’s argument from the sixties on its head: any solution is viable, except for suburbanization of the city’s surroundings à la Miami. This model represents the biggest onus on society. In this case, the straight line of the grand avenues that stretch the city’s horizons and reduce its density are raising other specters, more concrete ones: global warming, unsustainable growth, the destruction of natural and urban ecosystems.

And the favelas, always seen as unsolvable problem, can become part of the solution. Who would have thought? Many a Brazilian city is marked by accidents of geography. And in such places, the best path between two points is rarely a straight line. This may be the lesson, after all, that we can draw from those malevolent spirits of the Ming Dynasty.

Tradução: Flora Thomson-DeVeaux

Bruno Carvalho

Bruno Carvalho é ensaísta e professor em Harvard, nos Estados Unidos.

Leia também


O mantra do negacionismo namastê

Praticantes de um estilo de vida supostamente saudável recorrem à desinformação e recusam a vacina

A única semelhança

Cientista de dados negro, preso por engano no Rio depois de reconhecimento por foto, narra os dias no cárcere e a dificuldade para ser solto

Nos erros de reconhecimento facial, um “caso isolado” atrás do outro

Presos por engano, cientista de dados, mototaxista e motorista têm algo mais em comum: são negros

Foro de Teresina #169: O vírus mal-disfarçado do bolsonarismo

O podcast de política da piauí discute os principais fatos da semana

Na crise climática, Congresso tira o corpo fora

Metade dos parlamentares se diz muito preocupada com o meio ambiente no Brasil, mas só 7% acham que seus colegas têm o mesmo interesse; maioria atribui a crise ao governo

Mais textos