One thing which I've come across in recent months has been the work of Jeroen Koolhaas and Dre Urhahn for the Firmeza Foundation. The Foundation supports the creation of artwork in unexpected places with Jeroen and Dre taking this approach to Rio to produce amazing murals with the help of local youths. Their most recent project at Santa Marta is particularly impressive in scale and effect.
The press release explains:
"Praça Cantão, a new Favela Painting in Rio de Janeiro
Over the last month, Praça Cantão, the square at the entrance of the community of Santa Marta has been the scene of a spectacular art intervention and was turned into a vibrant artwork of monumental scale. 34 houses on the giant hillside favela, located in the center of Rio de Janeiro, have been painted in a design of colorful rays, radiating into the city. This 7000 square meter artwork is part of the 'Favela Painting' project by Haas&Hahn (Jeroen Koolhaas and Dre Urhahn), a project that aims to transform communities into landmarks and inspirational monuments as a part of Rio’s image, next to the statue of Christ the Redeemer and Sugar Loaf mountain.
“This work of art can make a colorful difference in the lives of local individuals, the community and the city of Rio. It has the potential of working as a catalyst in the processes of social renewal and change” said Dre Urhahn, one of the Favela Painting artists. Realization of the artwork is largely driven by the inhabitants of Santa Marta. 25 local youth have been trained as painters, providing for their own income and being responsible for turning their own neighborhood into a colorful monument. This grassroots method of working has proven to be successful in earlier projects, and gives the local community empowerment, pride and color. The local team is complemented by three painters from another favela, Vila Cruzeiro, where two of the previous projects by Haas & Hahn took place.
The project was paused during the catastrophic rains, that hit Rio de Janeiro so hard, killed hundreds and left thousands homeless. The team of painters was sent to the affected areas to help clear the rubble. The vulnerability of these communities and the situation the inhabitants sometimes live in, make it clear that they need all attention they can get. They see the art project not only as a way to beatify, but mostly to attract attention to them and their neighbourhood in a positive way.
The project has thus far been financed through grants and donations, but a co-operation with the dutch paint company AkzoNobel might open new doors. A meeting with their inspiring Managing Director Tex Gunning, showed they had a shared vision. “They wanted to give color to the community”, Dre recalls, “and we wanted to give art to the community. I see no reason why we cannot recreate this idea across 300 houses, 3000 houses, whether its in Rio, Johannesburg, Mumbai or anywhere in the world.” But first plans are to return to Rio to realize the dream that started the whole project and of which Praça Cantão can be seen as a start: painting an entire favela!
Though there's no mention of the post-occupancy stage, as it were, or mention of whether or not the aesthetic rejuvenation has had any visible signs of social change, the grass-roots approach is certainly a good start.
There's a couple of great aspects to this: first - engaging the young members of the area in helping create their environment. It's an interesting tactic and one which I'm sure could be applied to a wider typology of spaces than just slums. There are many smaller-scale community projects around these days, but there's something about the boldness and scale of this work which seems to make it much more successful. The second great point which immediately came to mind was the seeming success in spite of being restricted to surface treatment.
There's quite a debate on this topic when it comes to practices such as AHMM (as covered by Matt Derbyshire, for instance): Is the current trend of designing simple boxes and spatially bland environments spiced up with a can of paint and some wavy ppc balustrades a legacy of a new-labour ambition to appear to show rejuvenation without actually engaging with the real issues? Or, as this suggests, does that not matter so much when - given the budget - the alternative is just the same without the colour.
I think it's fair to say that a splash of colour is (almost) always welcome. It's good to be reminded that humour and fun has its place in architecture and this is all the more relevant in areas struggling with poverty. Sometimes architectural agendas are inappropriate if there's no budget to actually follow through to address the real social issues. When there's only enough money for a paint job, architects should probably learn to step back and allow the colour to make people enjoy where they live again.