An architect and university professor, Edgard Gouveia brings together favela residents and architecture students to design relevant, useful, and appropriate public spaces. This improves living conditions in the favelas, teaches residents that they can change their surroundings for the better, and influences the field of architecture to value community ownership and influence in public projects.
The New Idea
In the entrenched poverty of Brazil’s urban slums, Edgard uses community-led physical revitalization to spur momentum for community change. When outside architects exclude local people from designing and building public spaces, these structures are often inappropriate for the context. They also end up being neglected because no one in the community feels responsible for them. Edgard realized that they only way to truly improve public spaces in the favelas was through community-led and inspired projects. Edgard has created a model to bring together favela residents and architecture students in planning physical revitalization projects. Through the Elos Institute, Edgard engages communities in joint ventures with architectural students to address urgent infrastructure and public space needs. Working to generate their own project demonstrates to community members that they are capable of transforming their own living situations, a lesson that goes far beyond simply improving their public spaces. At the same time, Edgard teaches a new generation of architects to understand the importance of community-influenced projects. Edgard follows up on the exchanges with a program that supports community members in continuing the projects and builds on this experience to encourage favela residents to create further change. Together, these two programs form the foundation of the model he hopes to spread through universities throughout Latin America.
Brazilian favelas, lacking basic infrastructure and sanitation, are often in sub-standard condition and unsafe for the people who live there. Isolated from society and ignored by the government, people living in these communities lack the know-how and the resources needed to improve their living situations. As a result, the millions of people living in these slums do not feel empowered to address the most basic housing needs of their communities. Efforts to improve the condition of urban areas are often headed by architects who exclude the community from the project. Government projects to revive parks, public plazas and housing projects are often based on what the government and city planners think the community needs instead of on community priorities. Furthermore, these architects often arrive at the site with pre-conceived plans and designs instead of taking time to research the importance of the space within the community, its history, and the intricacies of the current structural problems. They do not understand the importance of having a project that is community-led or inspired. As a consequence, these architects often end up creating projects that do not accurately reflect the needs and history of the communities they are intended to serve. This alienates community members and prevents them from feeling that they have any control over what happens in their area. This sense of alienation leads to a lack of ownership and incentive to maintain the projects. By excluding the community members in the planning and creation process, well-intentioned government officials and architects miss the critical point: the only way to create effective and lasting structural change in the favelas is to mobilize and empower community members in all development efforts.
Edgard has created two programs through the Elos Institute to address these issues: Universidade Aberta: Escola de Guerreiros sem Armas (UAV) and Comum-Unidade (Common-Unity). The UAV program brings 60 architectural students into favela communities for 30 days to work with community members to design and build a community-chosen project. After the 30 day period, the Comum-Unidade program ensures sustainability by working with the community to continue the projects and build on that momentum to start new community-led projects. These two programs enable the favela residents to become agents of change in improving their living situations and accomplishing their goals. At the same time, the projects foster a new role for architects to improve urban communities by doing more than just designing new low-cost buildings. Edgard recruits his students for the UAV program at the yearly International Encounter of Architectural Students. On the first day of UAV, the students enter the favela community with both parties having no previous history or knowledge about each other. Before the students begin to think about what the community might need, they first get to know the people, their culture, history, the problems they face and their needs. After a few days of learning about the community, the students draft and compare an independently-generated list of projects with the community’s priorities as a way to understand how an outsider’s view can be very different from what the community feels that it needs. The community ultimately decides on the project and the students work with them on its design and implementation, taking into consideration the resources available in the community. The venture empowers the community members and cultivates a sense of ownership and responsibility for the project. The end of the thirty day UAV program marks the beginning of Edgard’s other important project, Comum-Unidade. Through Comum-Unidade, Elos Institute works with the community to encourage the sustainability of the projects and the creation of new locally led and administered projects. Edgard and a small team of residents approach the municipality and private companies for funding to generate bigger projects. Through partnerships with the governmental offices (Ministry of Culture, Ministry of Cities, Municipal Secretary of Education), universities, other civil society organizations such as Artemisia Foundation and businesses such as Petrobras, the community is able to continue the work to improve their surroundings. To systemize and disseminate his methodology, Edgard is currently building a network, Rede Latino-Americana dos Guerreiros sem Armas (Network of Latin-American Soldiers without Arms), to enable those involved with UAV to exchange their ideas and experiences. Edgard plans to launch the network in January 2007 after the next UAV in Santos. Edgard aims to expand his work to all five regions of Brazil and to all the countries in Latin America, creating a nucleus for UAV and Comum-Unidade in two universities in each region of Brazil and in at least one university in each Latin American country. To achieve this, Edgard partners with ex-UAV students, the National Federation of Architectural Students, Eslabon Institute in Paraguay, and Episilon Institute in Argentina.
Edgard was introduced to the world of design and architecture from a young age by his father who worked in the field. Gifted and studious, Edgard received a scholarship for the best schools in Santos but eventually decided to leave school for a few years to play professional volleyball with the intention of returning to school at a later date to pursue his passion: architectural design. With the money he earned from volleyball, Edgard was able to finance his architecture education and provide for himself. Through his involvement with a student organization at university, Edgard learned the value of engaging architectural students in working with the communities they affect. The group began restoring public parks and plazas, and slowly community members started working with the group to direct the students to what areas most needed attention. In 1989, Edgard participated in the National Encounter for Architectural Students, which inspired him to organize the Regional Encounter for Architectural Students in the Southeast of Brazil. At the gathering he proposed the students focus on projects in slums and favelas. In 1995, Edgard was given the chance to work a large project in Santos when he was hired to restore the Fishing Museum, which lay in ruins. Edgard thus invited the architectural students in the University of Santos to come work with him. They first interviewed fishermen in the area to understand their work and the significance of the museum. Then they spoke with the community members to get a sense of the history of the museum and what they would want in a new museum. With this information, Edgard and the students designed and restored the museum according to the needs and desires of the community. Edgard used some of the money he saved from playing volleyball to supplement the budget set out by the municipality. Over the next decade, Edgard worked on dozens more community projects such as the restoration of parks and community centers. In 2005, he founded the Elos Institute to work with lower income communities to improve their surroundings through a partnership with university students.