It makes no sense for cities to keep growing infinitely if the population does not grow together, says architect and urban planner Sérgio Magalhães, 76. If that happens, we will deepen the inequalities that underpin our urban spaces.
According to him, there is an urgent need to redesign them, and this is a global trend that was even more evident with the Covid-19 pandemic. The conclusion came from the 27th World Congress of Architects, which takes place from Sunday (18) until this Thursday (22).
Magalhães chairs the event’s executive committee, which for the first time in 70 years would be headquartered in Brazil last year, in Rio de Janeiro. The city then received the title of the first World Capital of Architecture by UNESCO and the International Union of Architects (UIA) and was preparing for the conference.
But it had to be postponed and carried out virtually. On the other hand, the 20,000 subscribers quadrupled to more than 80,000 worldwide, and now a whole set of reflections will be available on the internet, according to him, “to make a 21st century city a better city”.
Below, he talks about the changes in architecture in the post-pandemic, its role in reducing inequities and what was left of the Rio Olympics.
Since the congress, do you see any new trend in architecture from the traumatic experience of the last year?
There is a collective awareness that we need to readjust or redesign cities, in order to overcome the huge inequalities they contain today and that the pandemic has made completely evident. Many projects on urban health were brought in, for example. And there is also a collective awareness that we need to adapt cities to climate change and the planet. This on the side of the challenges of cities.
But there is another absolutely relevant side that the pandemic has brought: the hegemony of the economy, especially the financial one, over the agents that produce collective well-being has its days numbered. The idea that still prevails that when the economy improves, cities will improve is no longer as strong as it used to be. It was clear that the factors are all interconnected and that good cities are capable of improving economy, politics, culture, society, innovation. They are influenced by these agents and also influence them.
The number of evictions and occupations increased in the last year. Is it possible now to reverse this acceleration of housing shortages?
Homelessness is not a pandemic issue, it is what characterizes most Brazilian cities, with slums and suburbs. And even the formal city has very relevant issues to be faced. The spatial segregation of the rich is as detestable as that of the poor. But you touch on a subject that has an even greater dimension. In Brazil we have a stable population; this generation is no longer growing and from the 2030s onwards it will start to decline. So the idea of the infinite growth of cities needs to be revised, it no longer has a basis.
If cities don’t grow demographically, they don’t have to grow territorially, expand. If they do that, they will lose quality of life, because it means that people who are living in consolidated neighborhoods will move to new neighborhoods, which tend to be lacking in infrastructure. This is a central issue for Brazilian development in the near future, and also much more complex given the fact that in this generation Brazil will build more than half the number of homes it has built throughout its history.
We follow the Western model of society in families, which tend to get smaller and smaller. Today, Brazil has an average of three people per family, so one hundred people need 33 homes. By 2030, this number tends to approach two people per household — which is already above what Europe has today. So for every hundred people, 50 houses will be needed, with the same population. It looks a little futuristic, but it’s not. When I was born [em 1944], the Brazilian average was six people per household. And where are you going to build these new houses? If it expands, it will continue to build houses in precarious conditions or not, and the number of homeless families will increase.
There are alternatives. Brazil has enough economy to build within the territory currently occupied, which has many urban voids, many degraded areas, abandoned buildings. If the city is not redesigned, we will postpone Brazilian development. It’s not just a question of hope and dream, it’s a pragmatic question.
With the need to stay at home, a discussion was raised about the constitution of housing in the slums and suburbs, where people live crowded together. Did the pandemic bring more awareness about it?
I think so. And it also brought more awareness in relation to the formal city, where many people live very poorly, in inadequate apartments, with little relation to the urban environment. This set of situations needs to be understood by everyone. Historically, major traumas such as epidemics and wars change society. It is possible that from this level we can evolve to something better.
How could the city be an instrument for health change?
In many ways. In mobility, for example. Denmark invests in more pedestrian- and cyclist-friendly cities, reduces traffic conditions for polluting cars, and invests in highly efficient public transport. This affects the quality of public health.
What urgent needs does Brazil have? Supply of drinking water for the entire population. This is health. Putting treated sewage for everyone, something that half do not have today. So it’s not just the unhealthy house, which has poor ventilation, insolation, discomfort in relation to the weather. It is not enough to produce a hospital, it is not enough to treat health when it is already corrupt, it is necessary to prevent it.
Architect Paulo Mendes da Rocha, who died this year and was honored at the congress, defended cities that would support not only the needs of their citizens, but their desires. Do you agree?
The city exists because of people’s desire. What is this wish? To live with others. I recently heard about the pandemic that when the caveman discovered that the cave was a good place to live, he simultaneously discovered that the best of life was outside the cave. The history of cities is the history of social interaction.
The city also exists because of the people’s hope that in it they will have the best opportunities for education, health and employment. This is what keeps the city as a place of desire throughout the millennia. People are in constant conflict with their idiosyncrasies. The city is rich precisely because it allows this combination of desires and opinions. This is essential and needs to be preserved. The city is the antighetto, the antisegregation.
We are now back to holding the Olympics that, five years ago, was held in Rio, in a period of many works for the city. Today, what was left and what was wasted, in terms of architecture?
The Olympics were a very important moment for Rio and for Brazil, but what was most wasted was hope. Because it was treated as a panacea, as the overcoming of all problems, and it is not. From the urban point of view, the Olympics in Rio had important investments, but to a large extent they were based on very old projects, and some would have had to have some revision.
But I think the most significant thing about this was the concentration of resources in Barra da Tijuca [zona oeste], which shouldn’t have happened. If the resources had been better distributed, they would have been more beneficial to the city.
You are used to defending that there was a growing distancing of the Brazilian State from the responsibility of what is built in cities. What do you mean by that?
The city is not a product of nature, but of culture. So it needs to be treated, taken care of. You cannot have a city and say: the city is done, turn around. This attitude leads to urban degradation, loss of investments. The city needs to be planned for the medium and long term, and this is a function of the State, not of governments, which end every four years. This already happens in countries like France, England, Spain, Portugal, USA, and it needs to happen here.
Private initiative cannot supply this. It produced cities very well until the mid-19th century, but that changed when cities stopped being vernacular, built by people, and moved to the concept of an industrial city, with the emergence of places with more than 1 million inhabitants like London and Paris. At that time, city building initiatives were no longer private but public. France to this day has a function called “state architect”. The private sector has many attributes, possibilities to intervene in the city, but it does not and cannot be responsible for defining the directions it will take.