Architects Debate the Right to Public Technical Assistance in Architecture and Urbanism

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On Monday, October 16, members of social movements, architects, and urbanists gathered at the Casa de Estudos Urbanos, in Glória in Rio’s South Zone, for a discussion on “Technical Support in Architecture and Urban Design.” In the event organized by Ticket 3—one of the tickets running for election as councilors on the Architecture and Urbanism Council of Rio de Janeiro (CAU/RJ)—social movement members and architecture and urbanism professionals shared their experiences and challenges encountered in the fight for the right to housing.

Despite the 2008 Federal Law 11,888 establishing the right to public and free technical assistance for families earning up to three minimum wages, Luciana Ximenes, an architect and urbanist member of Ticket 3, highlighted the challenges of actually implementing it. According to the architect, in 2017 the national Architecture and Urbanism Council (CAU/BR) determined that 2% of each state CAU’s funds would be allocated to technical assistance, but in addition to that quantity still being small, nobody knows how it is being or will be used. Tainá de Paula, Ticket 3’s candidate for federal councilor, added that today the 2% from CAU/RJ would be the equivalent of R$240,000 (around US$73,000).

Jurema Constâncio, coordinator of the National Union for Popular Housing (UNMP), expressed her concern with the issue: “We fought hard in Brasília to get that 2% and we’re very concerned when we see that that money isn’t used. No one has touched it. That money is needed here to meet the needs of the movements, so we can meet the demand [for technical support].”

According to the UNMP member, today the movement is active in various different social housing projects in Rio de Janeiro, showing that demand exists for new housing: three in Jacarepaguá (where one is complete and two are fighting for access to the land), one in São Gonçalo, one in Campo Grande, one in Gamboa (Quilombo da Gamboa), one in Santo Cristo (the Vito Giannotti occupation) and one in Teresópolis for flood victims.

“There are so many movements in Rio de Janeiro, so many projects, but we are really lacking in technical assistance. Today you have a wide range of support from social workers. But architects, engineers—when you need them it’s very complicated,” Constâncio said.

However, the demand for architects and urbanists to be more active in the area is not free of conflict. Interventions by professionals are often questioned, with debate over their training and even over the ideology intrinsic to the words ‘assistance’ or ‘advisory.’ For Grazia de Grazia, a federal government advisory social worker, the word denotes an idea of domination between the architect and the client, and “if you want to change that relationship, the first thing to do is to change that darn word.”

“Our process was a little painful regarding how the architect understood or thought he’s the one who knows everything and we, the actual owners, know nothing. So this is a moment of conflict, but as I already said it’s a moment of good conflict, a conflict that you can actually discuss,” Constâncio said, recounting her experience working with architecture and urbanism professionals.

The elitist and removed position of architects and urbanists in relation to the country’s social reality is clear, but can be changed. Luciana Andrade, a member of Ticket 3 and a professor of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro’s (UFRJ) College of Architecture and Urbanism (FAU) and Graduate Program in Urbanism (PROURB), explained how her engagement with technical assistance and her work with the Solano Trindade occupation provided her with important opportunities for reflecting on teaching, community reach, and research within the academy. For the professor, it’s still necessary to radically transform the formal training of architects and urbanists, rethinking the social function of teaching, and from there discussing the city and the social function of property.

Engagement with social struggles does not only advance the education of students or professionals. As Fabíola Oliveira, a member of the Landless Workers’ Movement (MTST), explained, both activism and participation in the occupation in Sao Gonçalo were important to her own process of coming to accept her blackness. For her, the whole process is a huge lesson on accepting differences, on understanding them and working with them.

Regarding the interventions of architects and urbanists, it’s important for an architect to communicate with other fields of action, because in reality he’s “too little understood to speak with other professions and also with social movements,” Luciana Andrade said.

“The movement understands that, for us, technical assistance isn’t just the architect, or just the engineer. We have lawyers, we have social workers, we have psychologists that work on the [social housing] projects. We understand it as something bigger,” Constâncio said, emphasizing the importance of interdisciplinarity in the fight for the right to housing.

CAU’s role is very important, as much for incentivizing teaching as it is for the architects’ and urbanists’ own interventions in the field of technical assistance. As Tainá de Paula, the candidate for federal councilor, stated: “The council needs to promote a redesign and a new professional perspective on operating with the social function logic that we want to see.” Besides that, she added, “university community outreach programs have to be encouraged, not just by professors engaged in activism. We have to put pressure on the academy, so to speak, so it effectively considers its social function in its thinking,” affirming that the professional Council must exert this articulation role. According to the candidate, there’s a huge realm for action, but not only do people not know the services architects can offer the city, architects themselves are unaware of the possibilities for developing that role. As such, it is important for the Architecture and Urbanism Council to act to minimize those gaps and to ensure access to the city and to housing.