Pedregulho is a vast complex of housing and communal amenities that was designed and built between 1946 and 1952 in Rio's São Cristóvão neighborhood. Affonso Eduardo Reidy conceived of the project alongside engineer Carmen Portinho -- the third female engineer to graduate in Brazil in 1926, and the country's first urbanist.
Hamilton Marinho, president of the Associação de Moradores do Conjunto Prefeito Mendes de Moraes, or the residents' neighborhood association, graciously took Daniella, Steve, and me on a tour of Pedregulho. Hamilton was born and raised in Pedregulho and has lived in the complex for more than 50 years.
In the 1940s, a new interest in improved social housing was brewing in Rio due to the increased visual presence of favelas in the city, which had existed since the early 20th century. In 1946, the Departamento de Habitação Popular (DHP) was created with the goal of implementing more effective housing solutions for lower income communities.
At the direction of Antonio Arlindo Laviolla, Reidy and Portinho were appointed to the DHP's initial design team. Portinho was deeply interested in self-sufficient housing projects, i.e., a complex with its own amenities as Pedregulho would come to have. Laviolla disliked this approach, but Reidy supported it. When Portinho assumed the directorship of DHP in 1948, such a plan could finally move forward.
Hamilton explained to us that Pedregulho was built on federal land for state government employees. Originally, the residents did not pay rent. Rather, a portion of the housing cost was deducted from their salaries. They were meant to work within a 5km radius of Pedregulho, attempting a model for live-work transportation efficiency in Rio. When the capital of Brazil moved from Rio to Brasilia, Pedregulho's ownership was caught in limbo. Residents who live here now do so with permission, they do not actually own or rent the units, and they are fighting for the opportunity to own their homes.
Reidy and Portinho started construction with the project's shared zones to ensure that they would be built. In 1950, two residential structures with 56 split-level apartments, a market, a laundry building, a health center, gardens landscaped by Robert Burle Marx, and a mural at the health center by Anísio Medeiros were all inaugurated. Below is a photo of the model that was in Hamilton's office. This phase of completion refers to the 4 buildings on the righthand side. From top to bottom (not including the curvilinear structure), they are the two apartment building blocks 1 and 2, the health center, and the original laundry and market areas.
In 1951, a school, swimming pool, locker room, gymnasium, and a mural by Portinari on the gym's facade opened as well. These structures are at the bottom left of the model photo.
Finally, in 1958, the most striking structure of the complex, apartment "Block A" was opened with 272 apartments. "Block A" curves along the Morro de Pedregulho, mimicking the form of the land. Hoisted on pilotis (a stilt-like column pioneered by Le Corbusier), Reidy's design intent was to preserve the natural profile of the hillside and its vegetation. It is often said that Brazilian modern architecture reflects the curves of the local landscape. Though this might seem like an over-generalization, Reidy's social housing project Pedregulho does just that.
We spent most of the tour in Block A, which has seven floors. The third floor is an open communal space with virtually no walls. An interior street of sorts, this zone houses the complex's administration offices, and some amenities such as a barber shop and a chapel. When I asked if people use the space, Hamilton said yes they do, for parties or cookouts, that kind of thing. But he also said residents would do well to use it more often. "It's like living at the beach but never going," he said.
Floors 1 and 2 of Block A contain single room efficiency apartments, and floors 4, 5, 6, and 7 have larger units from two to four rooms. With the entrance off the street at the third floor level, in theory, residents need only ascend or descend a maximum of two floors. This permitted the omission of an elevator in the complex, decreasing the cost of the project.
From photos, the building looks like an "object building," a large massing of an abstract form. I was struck by how sensitive the curvilinear shape of Block A was when moving through the third floor mezzanine space; the scale of the space seemed neither too open nor too claustrophobic, and the curve of the building allows one to constantly orient oneself within the complex and the surrounding landscape.
Hamilton invited us to visit his own apartment so we could get a sense of the units. The "back" facade, or the facade that faces uphill, is covered in walls of cobogó, or open bricks, that allow for the mediation of sunlight as well as ventilation. Access to each apartment is through an external corridor in this in-between zone; Reidy avoided internal corridors that would require mechanical ventilation and lighting.
We also stopped by the gymnasium and school. Hamilton told us that paths used to connect the apartments to these shared spaces, however, they were closed due to security concerns. So Hamilton kindly drove us down the hill. School was in session -- children from Pedregulho, as well as the surrounding area attend. It was so exciting to see the structure in use! Other portions of the complex, such as the laundry area have not fared so well and are in disrepair.
In 2015, major renovations were completed of Pedregulho. These images from the neighborhood association's office show how the building was restored. For instance, the restoration recreated the original regular pattern of the cobogó bricks, and air conditioners have been accommodated. The wooden (!) brises-soleil were sadly left unrestored due to a lack of funds.
The building was praised on an international level. Le Corbusier, on his last trip to Rio de Janeiro in 1962 visited Pedregulho and said, "I have never had the opportunity to undertake a work as complete as this one that Brazilians have achieved with Pedregulho." Though the building is often considered a failure in lower income housing (having largely to do with the "self-contained neighborhood" aspect), for Hamilton and the 1,000 or so residents who live here now, it seems there is a strong sense of identity with Pedregulho as their home, and a hope for ownership in the future might strengthen that even further.