Rio de Janeiro boasts a stunning natural location, the city sprawled along the coast and weaving in and out of bays and jungles, but that doesn’t exclude instability, crime, and poverty – and this results in a kind of melancholic appeal that may not be immediately recognized.
These are the same characteristics that give it its reputation and shape its main image.
In Rio’s peripheries you will find the infamous favelas (slums/shanty-towns), striking and quite scenic clusters of neighbourhoods that are speckled on the edges of steep hillsides all across the city’s vast territory. When first encountered it can be astonishing, as these examples of disparity indicate their transitional nature.
The visual aesthetic of these chaotic and unrestrained slums is a rush: a combination of cultural and visual symbols which personify it.
Rocinha, biggest favela in the Americas. Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Cidade Meravilhosa is a city that can be seen as functionally disordered – confusing and messy, yet this anarchical functionality turns into a vortex of unabating energy that is not necessarily reflective of the realities of life within it.
It can also be defined in terms of massive social and economic contrasts: a vast gap between rich and poor, and a large number living in conditions of poverty. This resulted in many suburbs being made up of slums and situated on its hilly peripheries: hasty, disorganized, and fragmented city ‘planning’.
As it happens, the spirit of the favela is better viewed as a concept of contemporary art and a component of traditional Brazilian culture, where a connection between representation and experience show characteristics of the uncertainty of Brazilian cities.
It is fascinating how these architectural and planning patterns co-exist in Rio de Janeiro, which does have a structural plan and layout. That is also its uniqueness: their closeness to the wealthiest districts in the city, creating an image of striking social disparity and the marginalization of the urban poor.
Settlements in favelas are mainly informal, constructed without official permissions or building codes. The space is creatively negotiated by the residents, but it would have, otherwise, officially been dismissed as uninhabitable.
Favela dwellers, in other words, invent space. The settlements are never really considered ‘completed’, always in the process of progressing and spontaneously expanding.
CaRiocas, what Rio’s residents are known as, living in favelas build their own houses on top of already occupied lots, seeking to settle anywhere, however difficult it may seem. The huts are made of different materials and often use any scrap pieces of cardboard, wood, brick, plastic, fabric or any wayward objects that are found, and are assembled slowly, piece by piece. They don’t appear to be stable at all, but it doesn’t stop people from living there for years.
But the beauty of the favelas, the harmony of its people and their persistent energy can be felt – they are exhilarating places that grab the attention and curiosity with the kind of cultural energy that compensates for all the weaknesses.