Can architecture actually make a difference? The Music Factory, an arts and sports center that interdisciplinary design practice Urban-Think Tank (U-T T) designed for a favela (self-organizing neighborhood) in São Paolo, Brazil, intends to test that premise. Last spring, I was part of the Holcim Global Award jury that granted the project its silver prize, and last week I traveled to São Paolo for the hand-off ceremony. The project now will start, placing an open concrete framework for sports fields, and creating space for a local youth orchestra and ballet program in a crowded neighborhood. It will also stabilize the land on which it will stand, providing open park space as well as plots for small-scale urban agriculture.

Right now, the site is an expanse of self-built houses. The standard structure is a miniature of what Alfredo Brillembourg and Hubert Klumpner of the U-TT have devised for the center: a concrete frame with brick infill. That, at least, is what most inhabitants aspire to. The first structures (and a delay in starting the project has caused a re-invasion of the land the government has cleared) are usually cardboard and then plywood or wood shacks. 

What is most amazing is watching the progression from such lean-tos to pueblos of concrete structures forming an urban carpet, eventually leading to the emergence of stores, restaurants, and small churches. The older parts of Parasaipolis, as this area of now over 100,000 inhabitants (and those are only estimates) is called, look like normal commercial streets. On the other side of the settlement, the government has brought in a large school, designed as a modular assembly, which on the morning of the prize ceremony was filled with children in white and blue t-shirts learning, dancing, and generally being kids. 

The arts center is part of this progression. The difference in its design and, I hope, in its effect, comes from its architectural approach. It starts as an environmental-remediation project by stabilizing slopes, making terraces, and creating pathways through what is now a maze of housing. That will prevent mudslides, make productive use of open space, connect the levels of the steep terrain with a bridge and stairs, provide shade, and even make use of natural springs. The building that appears as a simple grid of concrete posts and beams is then more than anything a frame, designed to be flexible and open to the climate. More than most civic buildings, it will be part of the vernacular and open to possibilities.

Urban-Think Tank, based in Zurich, Switzerland, has created such structures before, mainly in Venezuela, and is now moving its South American office to São Paolo. The largest city in South America certainly offers countless opportunities for architecture to make a social and physical difference. Beyond that vast territory, though, I wonder whether this kind of approach—open, constructive in appearance and effect, coming out of environmental and social analysis, and connective in all aspects—should not be the starting point for civic structures all around the world. I think we have a lot to learn from São Paolo, and from Urban-Think Tank.