The beauty and cruelty of Rio de Janeiro

There is no reason why with the same infrastructural, social and economic support as anyone else in society would expect, that the favelas could not become truly beautiful without being cruel…

I am trying to think of something not too banal or cliched to say about Rio de Janeiro. It is rather difficult when I am sitting in my room in this artist’s house in Santa Teresa with its balcony overlooking the whole city centre and the bay and Niteroi on the other side, with bossa nova drifting up from the room below…

Being on a hill though, Santa Teresa is as good a place as any to try to get an initial feel for the geography of the place. Whatever you have read about Rio, however many pictures or films you have seen, it is still impossible not to feel utterly astonished, and in many ways delighted, by the place. Rio is unquestionably the most beautiful city I have ever been in. The shapes of the hills, the curves of the coast, the collision of architectures, the forest which comes right down into the city itself. Flying in, you could see its sprawl (this is a city of over 10 million people), but from the inside it is all small neighbourhoods, and more importantly all edges. One never seems to be entirely in one place in Rio, rather one constantly walks the boundary between city and forest, wealth and poverty, high rise and favela…

Because the poverty and the favelas are also inescapable. Unlike in San Paulo, where the favelas are located more on the periphery and can therefore be ignored by the rich, in Rio the rich and poor neighbourhoods are locked together like the fingers of clasped hands – but are they locked in mutual dependence or a death grip? The richer areas tend to run up the flattest land, whilst the favelas cling to the steeper slopes above and below. The disturbing thing for anyone who would try to form any swift opinion, is how beautiful the favelas are seen from my bird’s eye view. Rio’s beauty is matched by its cruelty, and even its cruelty is beautiful. The houses of the favelas follow the precarious topology of the hills, they pile onto each other, tiny alleys and stairs running in between. Self-constructed, they take the most natural forms that available resources allow, and in many ways are therefore the most human-looking places one can imagine. They most resemble the ancient towns of Greek islands or the Italian coasts, what Donald Ritchie called the ‘crammed mosaic’ of Tokyo neighbourhoods or Cornish fishing villages – the kinds of places that inspire deep feelings of the most intimate community.

But these are places of the most miserable poverty, crime and violence. From the bird’s eye view, you can’t smell the shit flowing in the streets, or see the tired, desperate faces of the inhabitants. It is because the architectural form, whilst it evolves from necessity, is not the cause of the socio-economic problems. Form does not, contrary to a still quite prevalent but regressive moral imagination, lead to a necessary moral or social outcome. The old rightist way of dealing with the ‘favela problem’, which was shared with leftist modernism, was the blank slate. Wipe out the favelas, put the people somewhere else, and everything will be okay. They were wrong. There is no reason why with the same infrastructural, social and economic support as anyone else in society would expect, that the favelas could not become truly beautiful without being cruel, why they could not come to be seen equally much as examples of the perfection of human settlement as Santorini or the old town of Lisbon, Mousehole or Mejiro…

The big question is how they get there. Rio’s multiple edges, its ubiquitous boundaries, are in many ways the most secure borders. The favelas are oppressed both by the most intimate micro-authoritarian internal control of the drug trafficking gangs, the uncaring external ‘prison-wardening’ and exploitation of the police and vigilante groups, and the utter fear and disgust of the richer classes who often see the favelados as nothing but criminals. I can’t suggest easy solutions to the fundamental problems, but part of what I am going to do over the next two weeks is to talk to a whole variety of people about the issues of surveillance and control and how some forms of surveillance should be broken or released and some should be made to work for people, not against them.

Author: David

I'm David Murakami Wood. I live on Wolfe Island, in Ontario, and am Canada Research Chair (Tier II) in Surveillance Studies and an Associate Professor at Queen's University, Kingston.

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