hostile cities

Clara Figueiredo, series_ quarantine records, house, São Paulo, 2020


The way in which urban life was organized in Brazil produced, spatially and psychically, an urban environment of exclusion, clearly hostile

Under the focus of urbanism, we seek to show here as e to what extent the Brazilian city has always produced a clearly hostile built space. The motto for the construction of the argument comes from freyrian writing, notably Townhouses and Mucambos, a text in which the author offers a detailed narrative of the urban development in Brazilian life.

From the extensive narrative produced by Freyre, two fundamental aspects stand out in particular for the ideas expressed here. The first is that the Brazilian social landscape, to use an expression so dear to the celebrated master of Santo Antônio de Apipucos, it was built around the house, the private space, consequently. The second aspect, a direct result of this socio-environmental choice, is that in that same landscape there was no place for the unfamiliar, from which the process of profound street denial, the public space par excellence, in the Brazilian city — from the colony to the present day. It is from these aspects that this text works with the idea that the way in which urban life in Brazil was organized produced, spatially and psychically, an urban environment of exclusion, clearly hostile.

In fact, the urban environment in Brazil was constituted entirely around the house — understood here as the greatest symbol of private space —, especially the townhouse, which, in the then nascent city, fully assumed the functions, real and symbolic, of the house- great brazilian. In this way, at the time when the urban development took place in our tropical lands, the same marks of centralism, domesticity, privativism, noted by Freyre, characteristics of the social organization that shaped the patriarchal manor house. Above all, it expressed, with unusual clarity, a profound rejection of the street, a fundamental public space for life that one wants to be urban, full, city-dwelling.

After all, consistent with the values ​​that these brands expressed, the Brazilian manor house was produced and experienced not only in its most obvious function, living space, but also in the expanded sense that Freyre gives it when he refers to it as “the old block divided into many specializations — residence, church, college, pharmacy, hospital, hotel, bank”. This is a first point worthy of note, since this 'block house' announced, since then, a spatial design centered on the private space, facing inwards, with its back to the public environment.

A succinct analysis of the XNUMXth century townhouse allows a better understanding of what was said before, especially the house empire compared to street discredit at the birthplace of urban life in Brazil, as we seek to show throughout these notes.

The starting point of this analysis is the floor plan of this house. Consistent with the appreciation of private space, this plan appears fully facing the interior of the house. It denounces, with this, a perfect harmony between the built space and nature privative from the brazilian house.

At first glance, attention is drawn to an apparent contradiction between the location of the visiting room, facing the outside, towards what would be the public space, and the absolutely restricted, segregated role that it had in the daily life of the family. To the more hasty observer, this location could suggest an approximation of the domestic space to the public space, since the living room, with its multiple windows and openings, opened onto it. However, the role that this room was supposed to play in the domestic space frankly contradicts this possible interpretation.

The living room, in the second floor, was not intended for the family. Quite the contrary, this was the space dedicated to the stranger, the visitor, the unfamiliar. This unfamiliar nature of the living room becomes clear when one knows that only the owner of the house had access to it when he received his visitors. Prohibited to women, including the lady of the house, and children, these rooms functioned as one more element to keep domestic life away from the public space. Indeed, the localization of this room, as well as the use that was intended for him in the social context in which this space was inserted, helped to keep family life away from the street. It is as if a symbolic wall had been erected between the domestic scene and life in the public space.

In this sense, the living room less mediated a relationship, which proved to be difficult between the house and the street, than it consolidated, spatially, the separation between what was familiar and what was strange, that or that whose proximity should be avoided at all costs. His daily life effectively took place in two other spaces — the living room and kitchen —, whose location in the mansion attests, exemplarily, to the domesticity that characterized the Brazilian house.

Prevented from going out into the street or even getting close to anything other than the domestic space, including the living room, which, strictly speaking, did not belong to them, it was in the living rooms that the lady of the house and her daughters spent a good part of their time. . Located inside the building, consistent with the idea of ​​spaces that “closed against the street”, as Freyre noted, these rooms were more comfortable than other spaces in the house because they had openings that allowed the entry of light and air, as they opened up to the free spaces at the back of the building.

Unlike alcoves, for example, closed, dark, hot and unhealthy, living rooms favored living, making everyday life more pleasant. Thanks to ventilation and direct sunlight, these spaces were much healthier and more suitable for life.

In these circumstances, the architectural form that the house materialized naturally ratified the patriarchal intention of maintaining family life closed against the street (and not just where women were concerned), completely cut off from anything that might mean contact with the outside world.

But, in addition to the spatial form, the mansion inherited its mark of distinction and alleged “gentlemanship” from the manor house. Living in a townhouse was an unmistakable symbol of social prestige. As a consequence, the architecture that begins to define the built space in Brazilian cities will naturally reflect the social place of each inhabitant, not only in form, in the use of noble materials, but again in the built volume.

Buildings with several floors constituted, as much as they proclaimed, the dwelling of the sugar mill owners when they became residents of the city. They hierarchized, by themselves, the social position of the resident, clearly enunciating the social values ​​inherent in that society. “This defined the relationships between types of housing and social strata: living in a two-story meant wealth, and living in a 'dirty floor' house characterized poverty”, as Nestor Goulart Reis Filho teaches in his Framework of architecture in Brazil.

The force of this explicit hierarchization in the contempt for the ground floor and the street, consequently, was such that the use given to each floor level of the house denounced the lack of prestige that marked the single-storey building. Thus, […] the ground floors of the two-storey houses, when they were not used as a store, they were left to accommodate slaves and animals or were almost empty, but were not used by the families of the owners, still in the words of Reis Filho in the aforementioned text.

In the architecture of the manor house, the Brazilian “fidalguia” was expressed in the taste for vertical construction erected well above street level. This is, therefore, another point to consider when pointing to the lack of prestige of the street, to its negation in the built environment that Brazil has created. The verticalization and, with it, the distancing from the street were, therefore, a way of social distinction as it distanced the overcrowded residents from the discredited space of the street.

It is interesting to observe the brand of Brazilianness — resulting from the manor house — expressed in this way of building. After all, the big house rose above the ground floor. In doing so, he announced distinction and pretense of nobility. It announced mainly that “there were gentlemen there” — the expression is from Vauthier in his famous letters known as residence houses in Brazil — who wanted to distinguish themselves from the slave “common people” who inhabited the ground floor.

The idea that the distance from the ground level can be seen as a hallmark of the Brazilian house in its eagerness for distinction becomes clearer when one knows that, in other social arrangements, the house, however noble it may be, opens itself to street without any apparent problem.

An example of this other way of building is the official residence of the British Prime Minister (10, Downing Street, London), one of the most prestigious addresses in the western world, built at street level, directly open to public space. This example allows us to consider that the distance from the street in the Brazilian reality — more than expressing a possible scarcity of land, as in the case of Recife, or overcoming the problems generated by a rugged topography, as in Salvador — indicates the permanence of values patriarchy in the production of the built landscape of the Brazilian city.

In this context, it is not surprising that the Brazilian street, everyone's space, was born ugly, dirty, fetid, discredited, conceived as a mere path towards home, to the space that one wanted to be noble, distinguished.

From an urban point of view, the lack of prestige of the Brazilian street in its infancy and, even today, its non-recognition as a fundamental space of urban life can be apprehended from three main points. The first comes to light when one observes the plebeian use (intended for the slave, the poor, the black) that was given to it. The second is evident in the function of circulation (of animals, wastewater, etc.), which marked its birth; and, finally, in the residual, almost random form suggested in many spatial arrangements. It can be seen, therefore, that the foundations were laid that would determine the urban configuration of the Brazilian city as we know it today.

In this way, in the shadow of the cultural heritage of the casa-grande, the Brazilian city produced, and continues to do so, a space of exclusion, centered on the private space, with all the socio-urban consequences arising from this fact, even if this does not seem to be the case. account, also, the Brazilian society.

In its current expression, the primacy of the private, exclusive and excluding space materializes, for example, in the construction, increasingly intense in the main Brazilian cities, of closed condominiums, whose outstanding characteristic is the fact that they are constituted in spaces that are closed in themselves.

In these spaces, it is not just the condominial housing mode, that is, a space shared between co-owners that is being disseminated, but a lifestyle, a way of living where the private space away from the external environment is made more and more more valued. As is known, especially in horizontal condominiums, the marketing made to attract potential residents, clearly specifies the offer of various services to be provided within the condominiums, so that its inhabitants can enjoy the comfort of experiencing the space of the house, keeping, at the same time, as far away as possible from the street space.

These environments are spaces that are closed against the street, in a clear and explicit process of reaffirmation of values, duly updated in contemporary life, that defined the reign of the house in patriarchal times, so much and in such a proportion that the commercialization of these condominiums openly announces , as an additional advantage to be added to the purchase of living space, the possibility of living in these environments, without going out into the street or going out as little as possible, exactly as the residents of urban townhouses in nineteenth-century Brazil wanted.

Residents of these environments use these spaces for fun or for meeting. Children play in playground while the adults have fun in the ballroom or in similar environments, spaces where coexistence effectively takes place. From the social point of view, they constitute, therefore, the space of equals (neighbors with similar habits, customs, income, etc.), which strips them of any characteristic or public function.

It is evident that urban violence, at the absolutely alarming and intolerable levels that Brazil has reached, offers an excellent justification, fully supported by rationality, for people to close themselves against the street. However, the option for this way of living (actually a choice for a way of living) only expresses the rational, declared facet of the question. Considering the marks of Brazilianness that characterize the construction of the built landscape in the country, it is legitimate to raise the hypothesis that the preference for this way of life in environments that close to the street manifests, in fact, the permanence of values ​​dear to the house when this one became Brazilian.

A more accurate look at this issue may reveal that, embedded in the reality of urban insecurity, the preference for housing in closed condominiums also manifests the desire to be different, both socially and spatially, to stay away from “the vulgarities of the street”. , as noted by Freyre, identified, even today, as the space of the poor, the kid, the socially marginalized, in short.

In this sense, the urban insecurity argument used as a justification for this way of living expresses only a half truth. If it is a fact that in these spaces greater security is available, the one that can be bought, it is not true that in them one can truly be safe from any criminal action, as attested, exemplarily, by the crimes committed in “highly safe” condominiums, publicized by the media with frightening frequency.

The issue of urban violence in its urbanistic expression is certainly one of the points to which the city's builders, notably the heirs of the two-storey mansion, have not yet given due importance. Maybe that's why they continue to repeat, in today's city, some of the mistakes that marked the way of building in nineteenth-century Brazil.

Gilberto Freyre, in the text that guides these reflections, drew attention to the hostility, or enmity, in his words, present in the relationship between the house and the street, when he noted the anger of those who, on the street, knew they were excluded from prime spaces two-story If one bears in mind that those on the streets at that specific moment in Brazilian history were freed slaves and their social peers, it is easy to perceive the feeling of exclusion that exploded in the unrestrained rage against the manor house and everything it symbolized.

For those who lived on the street, the slaves and, later, the poorest workers, residents of the mocambo or of the house built on the ground floor, the manor, the private space, represented at least two moments of exclusion: the first referred to he turned to family life in which slaves were, in the performance of their servile function, mere appendages. The second concerned exclusion from urban life, since outside the townhouse there was no type of social recognition.

The way found to mediate this relationship is a good measure of the tension that permeated it. On the side of the residents of the two-story houses, the solution to “defend the house from the street” was the use of “shards of bottles on the walls; the pointed spears of its gates and its iron bars, the thickness of its walls […]”. The other side, the side of the “mulecotes”, to this responded “jumping over the wall to steal fruits” or, in a clear expression of the hostility fueled by this unequal relationship, he dedicated himself to making, “the thresholds of illustrious gates, the corners of rich houses, the corners of patriarchal walls, urinals and, sometimes, latrines” or “ simply dirty them with obscene words or pictures”, according to Gilberto Freyre in the cited text.

Oblivious to the records of Freyrian writing, Brazilian society has not yet realized the social, and even urbanistic, repercussions of the indiscriminate production of spaces of exclusion manifested in the construction of high walls, of spaces sealed off even from the gaze of the other, in the contemporary urban scene. It did not realize the hostility that this environment expresses, nor the effects of this way of building on social, urban relations — in the proper sense of the term, that is, of favoring or hindering the practice of urbanity —, of the reaction, on the part of the excluded, that this way of building can produce.

They did not notice, mainly, that the denial of the street, materialized in the construction of high walls, hermetically closed electronic watchtowers, spaces that close off social interaction, can be one more element in the incitement of urban violence insofar as it reinforces the feeling of exclusion and the hatred that accompanies everyone and everything that is excluded from the privileged space of the house; of the private space, therefore.

Another type of built space that indicates the Brazilian option for a private and privative so much to the taste of patriarchal Brazil appears in the contemporary city in the form of shopping malls. Like the house and its adjustment — the expression is Freyre's, once again — to national life, these spaces soon manifested the mark of Brazilianness that distinguishes the built landscape in Brazil.

Among us, these spaces do not just play the role of shopping centers that characterize them in other social contexts. Here, the shopping malls they quickly became Brazilianized, transforming themselves into block-spaces, just as the Brazilian plantation house was in its birth. They are spaces where, in addition to being a shopping centre, a whole range of services and activities are offered and developed: language schools, cinemas, spaces for parties, doctors' offices, laboratory units and even hospitals, grocery stores, bank branches, hairdressers , bookstores, cafes, etc.

Eminently private, although for collective use, these environments make the role they intend to play in Brazilian social life extremely clear. They are spaces that welcome only equals — clearly rejecting those who do not belong to the same social group —, similarly to what the patriarchal house did. Now, the private and privative nature of the space that was expressed in the casa-grande in its domesticity is revealed, in the shopping malls, in the “natural” selection of those invited to attend them, defined by the purchasing power of each one.

We shopping malls Brazilians, the idea of ​​a space destined to similar social groups and, in this sense, family members, exactly as it happened in the main house, is clear when observing the profile of the users of these special spaces. In larger cities, this distinction is so clear that it is possible to know in advance which social group will be found in each mall of the city.

But not only with regard to social segregation, the shopping malls became Brazilian. With regard to the social function that these spaces play in society, it is possible to see the mark of Brazilianness that was transmitted to them. You shopping malls Brazilians have become a meeting point, exactly the role that belongs to the public space in any society where this space has effectively emerged, so much and to such an extent that many have rushed to define them as the new public space, forgetting to that we shopping malls some of the fundamental conditions for a space to be recognized and enjoyed as a public space are absent.

In addition to being necessarily open, that is, without any limitation or condition for access to it, the public space, in its urbanistic expression, is the space of plurality, of encounter and coexistence with the different, quite the opposite of a space where income and social class are essential conditions for being welcomed there.

Few spaces in Brazil, therefore, explain patriarchal values ​​as clearly as these centers of purchase and provision of services. By becoming Brazilian, these spaces were produced in the image and likeness of Brazilian society. They fit like a glove in an exclusionary society like few others. Unlike what happens in other societies, the mall national has its own function and use. It is not, therefore, a shopping center open to any and all consumers. It is, rather, a space-block produced precisely with the intention of taking people off the street, making them stay as long as possible inside, in the private space.

It is to keep people away from the streets and their disrepute that the mall it became a block, that is, it added to the role of shopping center almost all the other activities that previously took place in the urban space: going to the bank, seeing the doctor, going to school, getting your hair done, going to the movies, meeting friends , etc. In such a way that activities previously developed in different spaces now take place in a single space, the space-block, once again materialized in the Brazilian built environment.

As a consequence, clearly anchored in the patriarchal way of conceiving social life, this new space frees the heirs of the patriarchal house, Brazilians of ancient lineage, as Vauthier would say, from the vulgarities of the street, from the dirty, ugly space, so often neglected in society. Brazilian city. Socially, it ensures that everyone feels at home, since only those around them are familiar, those with whom there is a perfect identification, as they belong to the same social grouping.

From the point of view of the production of the built landscape of the Brazilian city, the distinction that these environments — segregated and segregated like few others — pursue is expressed in spaces that do not integrate with the surroundings where they are physically inserted, that do not mix with the rest of the city. city. As far as the urban configuration is concerned, they constitute ghetto spaces, in huge built pockets, separated from the spaces that surround them, often seated in the built environment, like elephants in china shops.

Around them, everything is transformed in order to welcome them, regardless of the destruction they may bring to other spaces in the city, such as historic centers, full of symbolic value and, therefore, essential for the construction and maintenance of the city. collective memory of any human gathering.

In the Brazilian reality, with the usual exceptions, the implementation of block spaces, whether housing condominiums or shopping malls, often favors the exclusion of other spaces in the city, notably when the neighborhood is not convenient, socially and economically speaking.

But none of this is by chance. After all, in the light of what was said before, the urban space of the Brazilian city is an eloquent expression of the most cherished values ​​of the society that has built it. Values ​​with which this society has always identified itself, without, however, showing itself capable of reflecting on them, in order to build another history, to produce other values, this time more adequate to life in society. polis.

As a consequence, from the point of view of the built environment, a space is produced that is completely different from the primary function of architecture in its role of providing a space for welcoming human beings in their helplessness in the face of the inclement weather of nature, of offering shelter, of favoring the development of a sense of belonging present in people's relationship with the environment where they live. Quite the contrary. In its exclusionary face, the urban configuration of the Brazilian city manifests the hostility of a segregating society like few others, which, to make itself distinct, excludes the other, the different, the poor, the black, denying them the most elementary human rights. Alienated, intoxicated by the obsessive search for privileges, distinction, environments private, paradoxically expects from those who exclude an affable behavior, typical of the urbanity that this city is far from providing.

The most evident result of this practice is the emergence of a markedly hostile built environment, exactly the opposite of the city's main function, understood as a privileged space for exercising urbanity, living with others, recognizing and respecting personal and collective differences. in a public environment that wants to be urban, that is, urban.

The issue that is brought to light and discussed in this text is that, in fact, none of this arises by chance, as was said before, but rather as a product of a social construction centered on the private space.

In other words, the architectural form of the city emerges as a direct consequence of the way in which the social landscape was organized in patriarchal Brazil. In this sense, it is important to reflect on the implications of the urban way of life that takes place in Brazil today, as well as on the social values ​​that determine the material construction of the city. Above all, it is important to reflect in which social, political and human direction this socio-urban option is taking us.

After all, as Alexander Mitscherlich writes in Psychoanalysis et urbanism, published by Gallimard in 1970, quoted here in free translation: "The way we shape the environment around us is an expression of what we are inside".

* Lucia Leitão is a professor at the Department of Architecture and Urbanism at UFPE.

This text is a summary of the book When the environment is hostile – an urban reading of violence in the light of Sobrados e Mucambos and other Gilbertian essays. (University Ed. UFPE).


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