Haworth Tompkins associate director Matt Watts shares his experience of the UKTI trade mission to Brazil
There’s no denying that Brazil is going places. Having travelled to Rio de Janiero and Recife on a UKTI trade mission, it’s clear that the country is experiencing sustained economic growth that would be the envy of most of Europe. These cities, like most in the country, are expanding at a fantastic rate to support the growing urban population and, like China, to house the new middle classes. With GDP predicted to grow at a steady 3 per cent over the coming years, there is a justifiable self-confidence and optimism in the country. This is reflected in the construction industry which grew by more that 10 per cent between 2009 and 2010 and shows no sign of contracting.
With a population of 190 million, 85 per cent of whom live in towns and cities, the country is rightly looking at how it should house itself. While the sea front developments in the southern areas of Rio, such as Ipanema and Leblon are a draw for those that can afford them (short term rents are at similar levels to London), the gated, high-rise communities next to shopping malls and leisure complexes that now line the highways in the newer suburbs such as Barra da Tijuca have become the dominant model.
City growth seems to be following the north American model of urban expansion - promoting car ownership and creating highways littered with shopping malls. However the town centres still hold the economic power and commuters face 90 minute journeys to cover just a few miles and in high temperatures. And who can blame people wanting to live near to Rio? The scenery is stunning and the contrast between tower blocks, beaches and mountains only adds to its appeal. But the transport model isn’t sustainable and the cities are in danger of grinding to a halt. The 2016 Olympics in Rio has triggered an attempt to improve connections with a number of BRT (Bus Rapid Transit) or express bus lanes and an extension to the Metro, but you can’t help feeling that this is only a sticking plaster for a more serious issue.
The new, large high-rise developments are following a model that seemed out of character to our group of mainly London-based architects. While Rio itself feels like an extrovert and open city with people living their lives on the street, or the beach, the new ‘condominiums’ (as these urban blocks are called) are gated and introverted communities with high perimeter fences and 24hr security guards. We were told that this is what people wanted, but we couldn’t help feeling that this would only serve to increase the perceived differences between rich and poor and with it, the threat of crime.
The Brazilian architects we met are as worried at this trend as we were. Similarly they are worried that Brazil is not learning from the tough lessons of previous housing booms in the UK and the rest of Europe. In particular that quality shouldn’t be given up in the quest for speed and profit and that the key to long-term sustainable growth is the creation of inclusive, vibrant and adaptable communities. Education, the arts and heritage must be seen as fundamental parts of these eco-systems alongside commerce and the economy at large.
But the Brazilians are keen to learn – to ask questions and to listen to those who want to be involved. In Recife in particular we found an audience of engaged and intelligent people who are already having an impact on new urban developments and are challenging the condominium model. This seems to be rubbing off onto developers such as Moura Dubeux and Cone Suape who’s proposals for the new city of Convida Suape drawn up by Broadway Malyan could help establish a new, more sustainable model.