Today, favelas have become synonymous with unofficial settlements on the edge of Brazilian cities – as well as crime, poverty, drug wars, and violence. Ever since the gritty movie City of God gave rare insights into organized crime in one of Rio’s most dangerous favelas, the global perception of this problematic phenomenon has become more pronounced.

Rio de Janeiro, photo: Frank R. Schröder
Rio de Janeiro, photo: Frank R. Schröder

At the same time, mere criticism of inherent issues does not solve any problems. When urban researchers Stefano Boeri and Urbz examined informal settlements across the world they actually discovered many positive aspects and declared favelas an essential part of the contemporary city.

Of special interest was the residents’ innovative approach to limited resources as their thrifty can-do spirit and flexibility helps individuals and families to deal with their shifting needs and changing surroundings. This attitude and approach fosters new and alternative modes of exchange, turning every idea into trade currency and creativity into an economic asset.

Recently, Brazilian design researchers collected examples of untutored ingenuity for an exhibition that showcases products invented and created by underprivileged urbanites, o design da favela. Here, the favela no longer epitomizes poverty or scarcity, but shines as a vibrant place of abundant imagination and innovative practice.

In this light, it should come as no great surprise that more and more western artists, designers, architects, and urban planners are flocking to favelas as sources of inspiration and living laboratories for unconventional projects. Take the art project by German graphic designer and artist Thomas Lupo who traveled to Morro do Papagaio in Bel Horizonte (Brazil) to observe local kids and support their natural ingenuity through low-key workshops and craft sessions. After documenting his discoveries, he published a book on favela design, Anleitung zum Ausbrechen (Guide to breaking free). The book not only records Lupo’s five-month stay with these gifted kids, but also encourages readers to unearth their own creativity using his manual for the creative workshops.

All of this underscores that it is high time to overcome going prejudice – favelas can be thriving, informal neighborhoods and vital parts of the urban fabric. Appreciating the creative spirit so prevalent in these makeshift settlements, it becomes clear that we need to stimulate their innovative potential, not pursue the going policy of neglect and segregation.

Text: Frank R. Schröder
Header image: A favela made out of paper by Thomas Lupo and ARTHELPS