Within Formal Cities

Brian Gaudio in conversation with Mathew Bate
Photos by Brian Gaudio and Abe Drechsler
This interview was produced in partnership with Transitons Film Festival.

When we think of a city’s architecture, often we think about tall buildings packed along a tight grid system rather than vast networks of informal housing developments that dot the fringes of developing urban landscapes. But in South America these informal shantytowns, known as favelas, are becoming the source for a new wave of architectural innovation. Brian Gaudio and Abe Drechsler’s film ‘Within Formal Cities’ explores how modern architecture can improve the lives of some of the world’s poorest people.

Mathew Bate: I want to start off by saying that I really enjoyed the film. Perhaps to begin, you and Abe won the Duda Travel Fellowship Prize, which allowed all of this to happen. What did that prize actually involve?
Brian Gaudio: Sure. If we go back several decades a man named Turan Duda also graduated from N.C. State with a Bachelor of Architecture. Following that he won the Winchester Traveling Fellowship from Yale where he did his Masters. This particular Traveling Fellowship that he won really shaped him as a professional. He's now a practitioner, has his own firm and he wanted to give back to N.C. State and start a fellowship of his own. 2014 was the first year that the Duda Fellowship was offered it and it was $10,000 USD. Abe and I were graduating from N.C. State at the time, that's where we went to architecture school. Abe and I were fortunate enough to win. We could go anywhere in the world to study architecture.

So you went to visit the shantytowns in South America.

In the film you mention that Rio de Janeiro was your favourite city that you travelled to. What was so special about your time in Rio?
When we visited, the natural beauty of the city was really breathtaking. Because of the geography of the hills and the bay it shapes the city in a way that a typical city couldn't be shaped. So I just was really fascinated with it and I think it also felt a little bit like Los Angeles, California, to me. It's got a laid back culture compared to some of the other developing cities we visited, which were quite hectic.

You named the film ‘Within Formal Cities’. Can you explain the distinction between a formal city and informal one?
The reason we chose that title was because often you have the informal city within the formal city. Many developing cities like Rio are rapidly urbanising and with big construction projects, like new football stadiums or hospitals, you get all of these temporary workers moving into the city and basically setting up their own housing systems. What results are these large “informal” parts of the city where pretty much all of the houses are built illegally. The formal city has been trying to reject these settlements for a long time. They don't list them on maps and they actively try to demolish them. What we learnt when we went there was that the mindset is changing, people are trying to integrate them so they can somehow work together. This takes time as you can imagine. We need to learn about about how these favelas work in order to integrate them properly into the formal city.


So the film focuses what constitutes good architecture within the context of these favelas. Someone in the film, I forget who, mentions that conventional architects are ‘guns for hire’. Can you explain what that means?
So that man’s name is Henry Sanoff, he's the grandfather of community design. He actually made a trip to Lima and that's how we connected with the some of the firms there. What Henry is referring to is the fact that often an architect is subject to the whim of what a developer wants to do. So, to a certain degree, whoever's paying us the money as designers and architects, we're beholden to what they want.

So usually, as architects, we're not the ones driving the projects ourselves. Often it's a real estate developer who says I want to do this, now show me a pretty picture and design me a building! Some people are guided by their morals and an understanding of good design, but other people are just trying to make a living. When architects are engaged early on in projects we see dramatically different results.

That leads us into the project called Larenca that you followed where architects came in initially to work with an impoverished community group from the ground up. Do you want to explain how that took off and how that contrasts with conventional architecture?
So Elemental was the architecture firm in the Larenca case and they've won a lot of awards. They won the Pritzker Prize in 2016 and the Gothenburg Award in 2017. They have been renowned for their incremental housing typology, where you essentially mimic how people are already building these informal houses. This particular community group had been working hard on this project and had acquired some land. They were facing some challenges and so they contacted Elemental. Elemental had done a number of these kinds of projects before and once they presented their idea for the project the community essentially said no, which I was surprised to hear because most of the communities just take whatever they can get. Usually people see architects coming in, bringing money, and they let them do whatever they want. So it was really interesting to see the pushback from the community telling the architects that this isn't what they wanted.

Yeah it was quite amazing to see the community group come back and say no with such determination. They wanted a home and they weren't going to settle for anything less.
I was so impressed by their fortitude as well but also by Elemental for not giving up because they probably had a million other projects they could be working on. In the end the project worked out. It ended up being a big dialogue. The architects had to listen to the community group and really take in their feedback.

There’s a balance when you're hiring a professional to do a job. They have an understanding of what the best solution might be. But then you have people who are going to live there. So we get this is back and forth dialogue that you might not get with other types of architecture projects. Usually it's the architects word that's the last word, not the person that’s going to be living there. So I think that proves how public interest design is a little bit different than traditional architecture.

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This back and forth approach to architecture you refer to as public interest design. Is that something you've been interested in for some time now?
Yeah it's something I learned in school. I had a number of mentors in school who really professed it and that's what drove me. I figured out that was the niche that I wanted to focus on. One of my professors had worked under a well known architect called Samuel Mockbee, who uses architecture to raise the living standards of the poor. I loved that spirit of Mockbee; bringing good design to as many people as possible. It became something that was always on the top of my mind. After school I went and worked at a firm in the Gulf Coast near New Orleans where Hurricane Katrina hit. Then I did a Fulbright scholarship that focused on disaster recovery housing and how we responsibly design communities. I got to a point where I think I understood how this field worked on the non-profit side. I thought it was interesting that in South America more for-profit firms were doing this kind of work. Most non-profit architecture firms serve one community really well but I’ve become more interested in attacking the broader problem by creating scalable solutions that can be applied to a bunch of cities.

The film really brings to our attention the idea that everyone deserves the right to a home. In some of the projects you covered there was a heavy focus on incremental, or D.I.Y., housing, where the architect provides the basic framework of the house and the resident fills the space and makes it a home. What was your experience like going into those D.I.Y. homes?
Yeah so in the film we talk about that concept quite a lot. We saw more multi-family complexes where you essentially build on the inside of a shell that the architect designs for you. That was really interesting, seeing what people do with their space. Also we realised that people are more handy than we thought. People in these informal cities seemed to have a lot of ownership and control over their homes and the design encouraged that. The other thing we saw with a lot of people, if they were on a main street, was that they would turn their first floor into a shopfront. The design of the building allowed the people to do what they were probably going to do anyway and assisted them to live how they wanted to.

If I recall correctly it's estimated that by 2050 around one quarter of the global population will be living in informal dwellings, is that right?
Yeah that's a global stat. If we look at countries like Africa, India or China the cities are growing so quickly and their population growth is happening so fast that no government could ever supply enough housing. The government doesn’t have enough money to do that. In the U.S. we talk about how people are moving back to cities. That's because we created these suburbs and these big houses and now people are realizing that families aren't as big anymore so they are creeping back into cities. But the reality is we're urbanized already and we’ve got the metropolitan area and the city proper. But in other parts of the world the people who are moving to cities are just going to be building their own houses. So it is a big challenge and may not be in the United States or Australia but it's going to be these other developing nations that have really high population growth and lots of people moving into the city. South America is one example of how cities are dealing with this issue quite well. It's an interesting case study for similar places like Mumbai or Nigeria, places like that.

Within Formal Cities is screening at Transitions Film Festival on the 28th February. You can purchase tickets HERE.

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Mathew Bate is the digital editor of Matters Journal. He's a published poet from Melbourne that likes to walk.