A weathered wooden shack with a wavy corrugated metal roof displays images of the Brazilian flag and a political campaign poster featuring three smiling, hopeful candidates.  Below is a handmade banner that reads: FAVELA “MODELO” DE QUE?  Translation: “Favela (a Brazilian slum or shantytown) a model for what?” Below that, in someone else’s hand, another sign reads: GENTRIFICACOA (Gentrification).

The shack and the statements upon it defy any single interpretation, serving as but one of the many paradoxical elements in the equally irreducible Within Formal Cities, a 50-minute documentary by first-time filmmakers, Brian Gaudio and Abe Drechsler.  The film’s primary narrative – the profession of architecture’s role in global housing issues – is set in the disorderly outskirts of South America, where eighty percent of its residents live in cities, making it the most urbanized region in the world.

Gaudio and Drechsler provide raw access to the favelas, barriadas, slums, and squatter settlements, which are all different names for the same thing:  the impoverished human response to overcrowding in South America – cities within cities, the informal within the formal, where housing is about survival, and the role for designers is uncertain.

There are many beaten paths that architecture students follow after graduation, while others seek out the unknown; others like Gaudio and Drechsler.  After completing their studies at North Carolina State University’s School of Architecture, the two set off on a seven-week exploration of five South American cities.  To fulfill the requirements of a grant that paid for their travel, Gaudio and Drechsler brought a camera merely to document the experience, never intending to a make a film. And we’re fortunate they did.

Screened publicly for the first time earlier this month at the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh, Within opens and closes with the world-class urbanism of the formal centers of Lima, São Paulo, Bogotá, Rio and Santiago.  Stunning cityscapes, arriving subway trains, public plazas, and crowded streets are shown through fast-moving imagery, serving as formal bookends for what lies within: the informal settlements.

The film’s pace then slows to reveal the self-built houses, open sewers and tangles of illegally-tapped power lines that make the settlements what Drechsler calls “both amazing and terrible places.”

Though a must-see for design professionals, Within’s appeal reaches much further, as the barriadas are both heartbreaking and captivating.  It may be easy to conjure in one’s mind generic images of typical settlements in developing countries, but mountain slums are something else entirely.  Drechsler’s camerawork captures the rocky topography, crudely terraced and barren, and covered in crooked houses that make you hold your breath.

From a distance, informal settlements resemble a Scrabble Upwords board – stretching for miles in every direction – that’s been tipped over.  As the filmmakers bring us nearer, we see that no two houses are remotely the same, and have only their fragile DIY construction and repurposed materials in common.  The varying colors, some painted and some not, and scraps of wood, metal and plastic, create a urban texture as precarious as anywhere in the world. Each house seems vulnerable to suddenly falling onto the one beneath it, causing an avalanche that could crush the formal cities below.

Favela in Rio
Photo: Within Formal Cities

The film is organized around three primary segments. “The Profession’s Failure” grapples up high with architecture’s values, and down low with its basic role in the lives of ordinary people. Henry Sanoff, a Distinguished Professor of Architecture at N.C. State, speaks about the code of ethics and moral philosophy inherent to fields like medicine and psychology, and says, “That’s really not apparent in the profession of architecture,” going on to describe its practitioners as “guns for hire.”  While critical, the film does not serve to bash architects; Gaudio and Drechsler give ample time to designers who have demonstrated their commitment to socially responsible design.

The middle of the film, “Participation”, confronts the traditional relationships between architects and their clients, and argues for more meaningful opportunities for residents and the broader public to engage in the design process.  The resulting tension is on display as Juan Ignacio Cerda, a principal with the internationally known Chilean architecture firm, ELEMENTAL, and Ana Lamilla, a community leader, discuss a housing project called La Renca. From each we learn about the discord that threatened to sink the project, as well as the process that ultimately brought both architect and client to common ground.

In the last segment, “Architecture as a Tool for Social Change” enlivens a decades-old debate about the profession’s ability to alter social behaviors and economic conditions through changes to the built environment. Two fascinating projects completed by El Equipo de Mazzanti, a design firm in Bogotá, make a convincing case for the transformative power of architecture.

El Porvenir Social Kindergarten was designed and built for children who experience domestic violence.  Carlos Medellín, Mazzanti’s Director of Research and Conceptual Design, says that the firm’s designs are less about form and materials than about the kind of “social response they want to trigger.”  With large windows opening to courtyards, encircled by a structure that is more than a fence but less than a wall, El Porvenir provides an interactive and secure space without isolating it from its surrounding neighborhood.  Similarly, Mazzanti sought to reclaim a public space that had been overrun by drug dealers, through the creation of a new open-air futbol facility, called Hope Forest. The construction costs and complex engineering of its roof – mesh decahedrons joined together to form a metal tree canopy – were less of an obstacle to its completion than the community’s initial “fear of change.”

All of the featured projects illustrate that architecture is about more than buildings.  Though it offers multiple points of view, the filmmaker’s bias towards socially-oriented design is never seriously challenged, but the film is enhanced by their openness to chance encounters.  In one scene they arrive at the wrong university, only to find a social housing expert who’s all too eager to give his visitors a lesson.  In another, they accept an invitation from Roxanna, a stranger on the street, who leads them on a tour of 1970’s housing development she was raised in.

The depth that the filmmakers give to the design process and socio-economic issues is matched by their presentation of the physical environment. Sweeping panoramas show the mind-altering scale of sprawling settlements, of which Drechsler says, “Tiny little houses in all directions. There’s absolutely no denying their existence.”  Narration accompanies most of the scenes, but the filmmakers allow for some quiet moments where the landscape speaks for itself, before zooming in to a more personal view.

El Porvenir Social Kindergarten
Photo: Within Formal Cities

In true cinéma vérité, the camera reveals Drechsler’s shoes descending the steep, narrow stairs of one family’s home, while Gaudio explains why another family covered every floor and ceiling of their house with knotty pine boards.  Both bring intimacy to a global problem most often presented only in terms of its magnitude.

By acknowledging the deplorable conditions that plague these regions, such as drug trading and human trafficking (without lingering on them for a frame too long), Within manages to capture the brutality of informal settlements without adding despair.  Equally important, Gaudio and Drechsler maintain their humility as inquisitive observers: at no point is the film governed by altruism or elitist pronouncements from the so-called First World.

Lighthearted seriousness is a difficult tone to strike, but Within does it well, in part because this documentary is also part travelogue.  Gaudio and Drechsler have to make their way to each city, find their bearings, learn the customs and the food, and then move on ten days later to do it all over again.  With no second takes, much of the credit for skillfully crafting this story goes to the editor, Zach Drechsler, Abe’s brother.  A few scenes suffer from poor lighting or audio, but given the subject matter, some rough edges not only seem fitting, but capture the feel of settlements in a way that something more polished would not.

This year, an architecture project from deep within these informal settlements garnered worldwide attention. ELEMENTAL’s founder, Alejandro Aravena, was awarded the Pritzker Prize, architecture’s highest international honor, in large part for his Half a Good House project. Subsidies from the Chilean government financed the construction of half-completed houses (with bathrooms, kitchens, living areas and roofs), while leaving the rest for future homeowners to complete.  This practice of “incremental” or “evolutionary” housing has been adopted in South America and elsewhere as a way of extending limited public resources to better meet the growing demand for housing, and empowering families to adapt their homes as their needs and finances change over time.

Hope Forest
Photo: Within Formal Cities

The film does not call upon viewers to get involved in the urban dilemmas of South America, nor does it speak directly to the United States’ own housing crisis.  Like Matthew Desmond’s recent book Evicted, which uses the city of Milwaukee to chronicle an entire industry that preys upon the housing needs of the poor, Within challenges our ambivalence about whether decent housing is a human right or a privilege; no matter where in the world we are.  In both cases, once you see it, you can’t un-see it, and what is to be done about it is left to us.

A clue to the filmmakers’ intent might be found in Module, Gaudio’s new start-up company that is experimenting with incremental housing in his native Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  Even as housing crises worsen throughout the states, ELEMENTAL’s half-houses would not be permitted here, no matter what problems they could potentially alleviate.  The stringent construction requirements for subsidized housing in the U.S. would render half-finished houses for low-income populations as substandard and unacceptable.  Rather than attempting to change a system governed by building codes (and lawsuits), Module is exploring ways in which houses can be designed to expand or contract over time, using the professional construction practices that our cities require.

Driving home any one particular message or issuing marching orders is not what this film is about, but towards the end, Gaudio does offer a call to action: There is a crucial role architects in bettering urban housing, and not just for those who can afford their services.  Gaudio says that it’s “the next generation of designers” – his and Drechsler’s generation – that need to determine what that role will be.

Gaudio and Drechsler did not travel to South America to find solutions, but to understand how other cultures respond to the challenges of urban housing.  Bryan Bell, a professor at N.C. State and Director of Design Corps, says that to truly serve the public, architects must “relish the unknown.”  This is precisely what two former students of his have done.  In the end, they may have also learned that a good approach to making a documentary is by not intending to. Within Formal Cities turned out to be an astounding accident that will resonate for some time.

To learn more about the project, or find out about future screenings, visit http://www.withinformalcities.org/

Read my previous story about Aravena’s Half a Good House project.

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