Flying Down to Rio

Students use digital technology to explore design solutions in makeshift, low-income communities known as Brazilian favela.

As the world’s population grows, so does the problem of affordable housing. In some rapidly growing urban areas, particularly in developing countries, the only recourse is to build your own.

The informal settlements that pop up on the edges of many modern cities are often derided as problem areas or slums, ramshackle neighborhoods beset with sanitation issues and crime. To Jose Duarte, however, they are “not a problem to be solved, but a solution that has some problems.”

Duarte, Stuckeman Chair in Design Innovation at Penn State, has long been interested in how these unplanned communities take shape, and how they evolve. What are the hidden rules that underlie their emergence and growth? By decoding these rules, he says, we can both improve existing settlements and better face the design challenges of the future. Doing so will be a critical task for the next generation of architects, landscape architects, urban planners and designers, and policy makers.

Gaining access to these neighborhoods, however, can be a significant obstacle. For one thing, “Most designers are located in the northern hemisphere,” Duarte notes. “Housing and urban problems are worst in the south.” Then there’s the fact that many of these settlements don’t even appear on city maps. “It can be hard to get information on them,” Duarte acknowledges, “and dangerous to venture into them.” Digital technology, he says, can help bridge these gaps.

“Most designers are located in the northern hemisphere. Housing and urban problems are worst in the south. It can be hard to get information on them and dangerous to venture into them. Digital technology can help bridge these gaps."—Jose Duarte, Stuckeman Chair in Design Innovation

Virtual Visits

Before coming to Penn State, Duarte taught at the Technical University of Lisbon in his native Portugal. While there, he became interested in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, the hillside settlements later made famous by the 2016 Olympics. Duarte and his students made several trips to Brazil to document one of the oldest of these settlements, Santa Marta. Occupied since the mid-1920s, Santa Marta has evolved from a collection of simple dwellings of scrap wood and corrugated metal to a permanent neighborhood made of concrete and brick.

When he arrived at Penn State’s Stuckeman School in January 2016, Duarte brought with him a digital record of Santa Marta consisting of thousands of photographs and videos. As the newly appointed director of the Stuckeman Center for Design Computing, he saw in this record an exciting opportunity to use virtual reality in the teaching of urban design. He talked to Tim Baird, professor of landscape architecture, about creating a design studio for their students that would focus not on one of the usual nearby targets, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, or Baltimore, but on Rio, and specifically on Santa Marta.

The two teamed up with professor of geography Alex Klippel, an expert in 3D modeling and virtual reality and head of Chorophronesis, a research unit within Penn State’s department of geography, to create a virtual environment from the images Duarte had collected. Ph.D. student Jiayan Zhao also worked on the project.

From the start, they wanted to try something new. “VR in architecture is mainly being used to allow students to see what their designs would look like,” Baird explains. “We wanted to take it further, to use VR to convey the site itself.” They also incorporated guest lectures by Brazilian and American scholars and remote collaboration by video conferencing with experts in Rio.

“VR in architecture is mainly being used to allow students to see what their designs would look like. We wanted to take it further, to use VR to convey the site itself.” —Tim Baird, professor of landscape architecture 

Studio Remote

When the course was announced, Duarte and Baird had no trouble recruiting students. “Everyone wanted to take the Rio Studio,” says Connor Kane, who signed on as a fifth-year student in landscape architecture. Six teams made up of one architecture and one landscape architecture student each worked together collaboratively throughout the semester on all phases of the project from analysis and research to design.

For fellow landscape architecture student Hannah Thomas, it was a chance to learn about new technologies, “which I would not have done otherwise,” Thomas says. Elena Vazquez, an architecture graduate student from Paraguay, was curious to see just how a studio could be conducted remotely.

Thomas and Vazquez wound up working together, learning all they could about Santa Marta, identifying some of its pressing problems, and coming up with solutions. The overall goal was to suggest improvements that would help to integrate the neighborhood with the surrounding city of Rio. “These settlements tend to be segregated from the formal city,” Duarte explains. Because they are not officially ‘visible,’ they are essentially cut off from basic infrastructure and services.

Faced with limited resources and an abundance of needs, the teams focused on what architects and landscape architects call “urban acupuncture”: small-scale interventions that can achieve broader impact. Their design proposals included “green” roofs, pop-up markets, and free wi-fi zones, as well as suggestions for enlarging and connecting public spaces and improving stormwater drainage and sewage treatment through the creation of green infrastructure.

“I could literally walk, see, hear, and understand Santa Marta, and I never left Penn State.” — Connor Kane, landscape architecture student

Exploring the site virtually “was so incredible,” says Kane. “I could literally walk, see, hear, and understand Santa Marta, and I never left Penn State.” At the same time, Vazquez says, depending on a virtual representation “was very challenging, because the favela is a living organism. It doesn’t stop changing and growing.”

A computer model of Santa Marta created by Ph.D. student Debora Verniz gave participants an additional vantage point. For her dissertation, Verniz is using her model to extract the unspoken design rules she says underlie the favela’s growth, governing things like a new building’s dimensions and shape, and its placement in relation to existing structures. Although construction is not planned in advance or according to the dictates of some central authority, she explains, there are “local” rules or norms that emerge in practice. Understanding these rules and why they work may help to guide future designs for affordable housing solutions in other cities.

Making connections

At semester’s end, Duarte, Baird and their students flew to Rio to present their ideas to Santa Marta’s residents. Arriving at last in the real-live favela, they had to make some adjustments. The narrow streets felt familiar, but the topography was a bit of a shock. “You get a sense of it from VR,” Vazquez says, “but you don’t really know until you get there just how steep the streets really are.”

The students made their presentations in Santa Marta’s samba school, its main gathering space, using portable VR headsets and an app developed by senior research associate Jan Oliver Wallgrün to help convey their ideas. Then community members were invited to respond. “It was quite a learning experience for all of us,” Duarte says. “The quality of the comments we heard was remarkable. I could have heard some of them at a Ph.D. defense.”

One wish expressed by residents was that they had been consulted earlier in the design process, a request that Duarte and Baird are looking to build into their plans for a second Rio Studio next spring. In addition, the two are working with the Penn State Press on a book documenting the studio and evaluating the effectiveness of remote site visits as a tool for professional designers. Such tools, they say, will be essential in the coming decades as urban challenges grow.

“A big part of the population of the world lives in informal settlements,” Duarte says. “We need to teach our students how to work in them.”

“Often technology tends to separate people,” Baird adds. “We want to show how it can be used to integrate them.”

The development of the mobile VR app was supported through a research initiation grant from Penn State's Center for Online Innovation and Learning. 360-degree still images and video of favela Santa Marta can be viewed with VR goggles or glasses at the Rio Studio website.