Archdaily Brasil // A Pattern Language of Self Construction: a pedagogic tool to understand the spaces and social practices of Brazilian Favelas. (2017)

English Version of the Article 'Uma linguagem padrão da autoconstrução: ferramenta para compreender os espaços e as práticas sociais das favelas brasileiras', published on the 26th of September of 2017 on the online magazine 'Archdaily'. Below the link:


A Pattern Language of Self Construction:

a pedagogic tool to understand the spaces and social practices of Brazilian Favelas.



Ana Rosa Chagas Cavalcanti


<<Architects themselves build a very,

very small part of the world.

Most of the physical world is built by just

 all kinds of people. It is built by it is built

 by do-it-yourselvers in Latin America(..)>>

Cristopher Alexander, The origins of the Pattern Theory, 1999:74[i].




  1. Introduction:

The pattern language proposed by Christopher Alexander is an universal planning method based on humanism, and a crucial study in the field of architecture and urban design, that has been vastly applied in traditional architecture education. The patterns by Alexander are used both as project guidelines or as principles to design. They hinge upon a complex range of relevant aspects of the built environment, and have a fundamental role in the discussion of the project of architecture and human behavior.

This method is vastly applied in the education and design of formal architecture. Nevertheless, nowadays, due the progression of informal settlements, in the World, especially in the Global South, the interpretative tools of traditional architecture are being inquired.

1HousesFavela CasasnaFavelaSururudeCapote copy 

In fact, it appears that methods, reasoning, interpretations and tools, are not adequate in case of self constructed environments. In fact, when architects plan in context of informal settlement, they think about environment, costs, site, people’s needs, materials, ideas, time, space, ergonomics, organizational framework and the political realm solely based on the perspective of who does the planning within a technocratic domain.  In fact, Architects who work with the design of housing for the unprivileged often struggle to understand their “client” profile or are not concerned about their needs. Thus if often happens that many projects aimed at requalifying the context of slums fail in their purpose and classical examples are new social housing reformed in short time into favelas again.

Also literature raises its concerns about how informal settlement are approached (Alsayaad & Roy, 2004; Roy, 2005, Gilbert 2007; Arabindoo, 2011) [1]  and hope for new epistemological frames for the studies of informal settlements. In particular, it is though as fundamental to read both the informal settlements and the ‘urban poor’ in more imaginative terms (Arabinddoo, 2011: 640).[2]


I build in my research within these debates starting from a radical reconsideration of the method and the target of investigation of traditional architecture. In fact, my decennial research on informal settlements is based on information collected during more than four years of field research and participant observations in some favelas in the north of Brazil. This lets to overcome the dichotomy by which often for example the disciplines of sociology and anthropology are separated from the study of architecture.


From the elaboration of all the collected data (photo, video, drawings, interviews), it clearly appeared that social practices, notably, the labour practices, play a key role on the design of spatial attributes of favelas. There is an ecosystem composed by the circulation of objects, people, money, labour and knowledge that addresses the milleu of construction of the favela and the entire territories that they tackle. As an example, the self construction process requires the consultation and sharing objects, resources, money and skills among the inhabitants, and between the inhabitants of the favela and the non-favela city. For more details about the intellectual framework, be referred to recent publications (Chagas Cavalcanti, 2017 a; Chagas Cavalcanti 2017b). .[3] [4].

All in all, rather than focusing only on built components of favelas, the assessment of space in informal settlements should be concerned also with the numerous day to day runnings and social practices which are often unseen in academic literature focused on architecture. Moreover, learning the architecture of informal settlements from the social practices  is important because it may avoid parochial discourses in the education of architecture, being included tackling issues as the ‘aesthetization of poverty’ or the ‘museification of squatter settlements’ such as states Ananya Roy in her writings about her experience teaching at the University of Berkeley (Roy, 2004)[5],


Overall, with the present study, I aim to expand the method of C. Alexander in order to include the social practices that are susceptible of shaping the space of informal settlements. These patterns are described in graphical form, through the depiction of the social practices that happen over and over again in the space of the slum. As said, all the practices were identified through participant observation: the tools used were photographic registers, drawings, graphics, videos and interviews.

The patterns are organised in groups depending on their characteristics, in such a way that the groups are essentially describing the categories of the pattern language. These categories reflect the inhabitants’ expertise, their capacities and their resources. Graphical representation sheds light on various things otherwise hard to describe, such as the daily dynamics and feeling of slum habitation and the symbolic meaning of certain spaces. There are four main categories, (Labour, Dwelling, Commons and Subjects). These centre around all aspects of the inhabitants’ lives and their productions, starting from the work they do with their hands: Labour, passing through their Homes, to rules of Commonalty, until Residents activities. These categories tackle different scales in the production of space, addressing them in descending order.  In other words, the first category refers to the scale of the city and transitions into the scale of the dwelling, and then onto the scale of coexistence between subjects until the last scale which deals with the subjects themselves.

In the following, each category is explained. More than 90 patterns were found but as editorial reasons, only fourteen graphical patterns are showed.



2. 1 First Category: Labour


The first category is associated with labour, implying all actions and practices of favela inhabitants that come from the residents’ working actions. People who live in informal settlements both work in the formal and formal “city”. Dwellers and their labour activities tackle the city through various scales and a broad economic system.[6] This has addressed the blurred boundary that exists between formal planning and informal planning, showing the encounter of the resources and residents’ capacity to survive both in formal and informal environments.

There are a variety of labour practices in favelas, ranging from nurseries to tattoo shops, internet shops, grocery shops, vendors of international beauty products, hairdressers, restaurants, bars and so on. Throughout the years, many houses have been remodelled to incorporate small businesses, chapels and Internet points. Furthermore, single-family units are becoming multi-family units.Within the material agglomerations and spatial attributes of a favela, work and all that revolves around it becomes highly important. Throughout the past years of field research in the favela Sururu de Capote it has been observed that many of the houses and spatial attributes were related to work practices of the inhabitants.94 The incremental capacity of the space should not be taken for-granted or associated with the bucolic idea of a family, which finds a piece of land and self-builds its own home and expands it due its uncontrolled growth. Many of the modifications and spatial adaptations have a purpose related to the working activities of the inhabitants. Such transformations are triggered by labour.

On the other hand, a considerable number of functions within the city are provided by favela residents.[7]  These include masons, maids, vendors, hairdressers, grocery-shop owners, bar owners, nurses, taxi drivers, low income property owners, beauty teachers, small property owners, manufacturers, craftsmen or plumbers.


2Windows Janelas

Figure 2: The window shop is a spatial attribute of favela: Windows of some houses in the favela are used as showcase to sell goods produced by the work of residents in their own houses. Source: Ana Rosa Chagas Cavalcanti, 2015 (Pattern #5).

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Figure 3: Repair culture as social practice is a source of income in the Favelas and domestic space has to be often adapted to work. Source: Ana Rosa Chagas Cavalcanti, 2017 (Pattern #37).

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Figure 4: Work at home is a common practice in the self constructed settlements. Not only clothes repair, but also hair dresser, carpenters, manicures, pedicures, grocery stores, nurseries (…) Pattern #1, shows that oftentimes the residents work in their own houses, a predominant source of income by inhabitants is the hairdresser shops. Source: Ana Rosa Chagas Cavalcanti, 2015.

Screen Shot 2017 10 17 at 11.30.49


Figure 5: Bar and restaurants or services are usually emplaced at the boundary of favelas with the formal city: services can be provided to both residents and people from formal city  Source: Ana Rosa Chagas Cavalcanti, 2015 (Pattern #37).



2.2  Second Category: Dwelling

This category tackles the dwelling practices, family life, domestic life and other activities that happen inside the house that are not included within income generation processes, but still shape the ecosystem of houses. A variety of housing functions exist within favelas, notably the fact that older inhabitants would have usually built more than one house in the favela and tend to rent a second house.

In general, houses tend to be of a single typology and they range from 1 to 4 storey-buildings: one kitchen, one bathroom, one living room and a single bedroom. Plenty of improvisations such as drain holes at the bottom of houses, ventilation holes, or exposed plumbing tend to be seen often within the favela. Some subtle differences denote quality (e. g. the access to a belvedere or the revetment of the front facade).

Living room spaces, windows, garages and other front rooms generally double up in function to cater for an income generation activity such as commercial activities or services to the residents and people from outside of the community. Bathrooms are usually not fitted with glazed tiles and water infiltration is thus frequent. In fact, dressing up walls and facades with glazed tiles and ceramic tiles is something that inhabitants aim to achieve.

Houses and neighbourhoods in favelas are not derived from a pre-set architectural program but through specific space attributions and human activities that act as proposers of changes, decisions, needs, resources, capacities.

6Botijao BottledGas

Figure 6: Ovens in self constructed settlements depend on gas. Sellers of bottled gas frequently carry them at the stairways of the favelas Source: Ana Rosa Chagas Cavalcanti, 2017 (Pattern #52).

7CeramicPlates Ceramica

Figure 7: Ceramic plates is an important building strategy adopted by inhabitants because it both protect and coat the house. Inhabitants often proudly refer that their house is entirely in ceramics (“casa toda na ceramica”) Source: Ana Rosa Chagas Cavalcanti, 2017 (Pattern #49).

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Figure 8: Curtains are often used as doors due to lack of resource Source: Ana Rosa Chagas Cavalcanti, 2017 (Pattern #55).


2.3 Third Category: Commons

The third category consists of both the public, private, shared and common spaces in the favela.

Communal issues are remarkable in the favela.[8] They are mainly expressed through commonly shared devices and spatial attributes. For example, it is normal for laundry tanks, electrical plugs, water storage tanks, buckets, corridors, stairs, rooftop patios/laje/slab, belvedere/viewing points, outdoor appliances, laundry rooms, bike parking and waste containers to be shared by multiple users. Furthermore, there is an advanced sense of trust within the community and it is customary for residents to leave their doors ajar on a daily basis.

 In such a context, relations between private, shared and public spaces may sometimes be unclear. These are generally not defined by an architectural program but through specific spatial attributions, and human activities. Negotiations and compromises with neighbours are fundamental. For example, in almost all cases, houses have an improvised, self-built sewage, water and electrical systems that often connect to neighbouring ones. Usually, repairing them requires constant guesstimating about where the pipes or wires are coming from with respect to those of the neighbours. For example, sometimes water tanks are located in an unused corner of a neighbour’s corridor and a pump delivers water to an individual’s house. Typically, backup systems of water storage are also in place and are controlled by a group of experienced masons; they can use this water in case of shortage or in order to fill a plastic swimming pool during the summer for children of the community.


 Screen Shot 2017 10 17 at 11.31.58

Figure 9: Social organization in case of water shortage: Some water tubes are located at the surface of many stairways and assembled without glue in the tube joints. By doing so, inhabitants can have access to water in case of need (house extension, “bica shower”).  Moreover, apparent tubes compose the façade of many houses of the favela Source: Ana Rosa Chagas Cavalcanti, 2016 (Pattern #64)


Screen Shot 2017 10 17 at 11.32.09

Figure 10: Slabs (Lajes) are often used as connective points among residents. They are often used for celebrations, barbecues, sun bathing, ancillaries’ activities Source: Ana Rosa Chagas Cavalcanti, 2017 (Patter #58)


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Figure 11: Various common spaces, such as stairways, in the favela are reused for leisure activities. Moreover, also devices such as computer or mixers are often shared among residents. Source: Ana Rosa Chagas Cavalcanti, 2015 (Pattern #60).



2.4 Residents:

The last category Residents is concerned with the daily practices of the actual builders of the favelas and includes the choices, aesthetics and calculations made by local inhabitants. They range from the material that inhabitants chose to add quality to their houses, their resources, their capacities and their organization.

Residents see housing through a specific perspective. A bricklayer is an important character in the transformation of the favela built environment, much as a family core is a unit for the calculation of spaces and people skills are a purchase value within informal economies.

Furthermore, there are many particular details related to living in the favelas.  Residents tend to add ornamentation to their houses with plastic flowers or divide the dwelling interior with fabrics instead of doors. If houses have no separate rooms, the objects disposed in the house define the function of that particular room: thus a pan and an oven implies a kitchen, a bed denotes a bedroom, a TV implies the living room and so on.  Favela’s residents overlay their houses with ceramic tiles (casa toda cimentada) as a way of protecting the interior from humidity. They take great pride in their handiwork and their houses, which are commonly adorned with statues of saints, sanctuaries and photos of the family.  Inside, various goods are hung to the celling or stacked on top of windows in order to economize on space. This is especially done in the rooms allocated for income generation.

Soundscapes in the neighbourhood denote an environment of ‘self-building’, expressed through an almost continuous sound of hammers; in addition to neighbourhood talks in general. Furthermore, some people raise small farm animals so the sound of roosters crowing is frequent in the early morning, and churches turning on loud sound systems in order for everyone near to hear prayer services.”[9]


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Figure 12: During hot days in summer, residents may dismantle water pipes in order to take a bica shower (shower with hoses in open spaces). Residents can also dismantle pipes in order to fill inflatable pools for children. Source: Ana Rosa Chagas Cavalcanti, 2015 (Pattern #68).


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Figure 13: Inhabitants adorn their shops with their own resources. Usually they pend items in the roof of shops and make compositions with the products they sell. Source: Ana Rosa Chagas Cavalcanti, 2017 (Pattern #64).

 Screen Shot 2017 10 17 at 11.33.00 


Figure 14: Significant presence of churches in the favelas. Source: Ana Rosa Chagas Cavalcanti, 2016 (Pattern #93).



3. Conclusions:

A pattern language for informal settlement is presented. Some of the patterns in this article may be used as a reference for planning, while others demonstrate issues that need to be addressed in the slums, such as the emergent issues. All in all, this pedagogic tool aims to unveil details the design challenges architects have to face when they deal with these scenarios.

In fact, it does not aim to be an instrument of normalizing or establishing rules to the design of self constructed spaces, but is actually an instrument of encounter between the academic architect and the inhabitant. In doing so, it aims to reverse the logics of traditional architectural education and propose and reflect upon architecture. Hopefully, this pedagogic tool can be used in different contexts in order to stimulate the learning of social practices, ethnographic and economic data for the education of architecture learners.


4. References:

[1] Roy, A.; AlSayyad, N. (2004). Urban Informality: Transnational Perspectives from the Middle East, Latin America and Asia.London: Lexinton Books. 

Roy, A. (2005). Urban informality: Towards an epistemology of planning. Journal of the American Planning Association, Vol. 1, N. 2, Spring 2005.

Gilbert, A. (2007). The Return of the Slum: Does Language Matter?. IJURR, Volume 31, Issue 4, Pages 697-713. 10.1111/j.1468-2427.2007.00754

Arabindoo, P. (2011). Beyond the return of the “slum”. City, Volume 5, N. 6. Pages: 631—635.

[2]Arabindoo, P. (2011). Rhetoric of the ‘slum,’. City 15, no. 6 (2011): 636–46, doi:10.1080/13604813.2011.609002.Page: 640

[3] Chagas Cavalcanti, A.R (2017). Work, Slums and Informal Settlements Traditions: Architecture of the Favela do Telegrafo. Traditional Dwellings and Settlements Review Volume XXVII, II.Pages 71-81.

[4] Chagas Cavalcanti, A.R (2016). How Does Work Shape Informal Cities ? The Critical Design of Cities and Housing in Brazilian Slums.  The Plan Journal, 1, no. 2 (2016): 49–64, doi:10.15274/tpj.2016.01.02.04.

[5] Roy, A (2004). Transnational Trespassings: The Geopolitics of Urban Informality. In Alsayyad, N. and Roy, A. (ed.), Urban Informality: Transnational Perspectives from the Middle East, Latin America and Asia, London: Lexinton Books. Pages 289-318.

[6] Chagas Cavalcanti, A. R. (2017). Work, Slums and Informal Settlements Traditions: Architecture of the Favela do Telegrafo.

[7] Chagas Cavalcanti, A. R. (2009). Dos calejados pés, os passos dos filhos de Mae Lagoa: A Invenção do Espaço a Partir dos Ritos de Sururu. Graduation Thesis (Federal University of Alagoas).

[8] Ibid.

[9]Chagas Cavalcanti, A.R. (2015) “Hence, We Will Improvise: A Claim for Methods and Approaches through the Perspective of Dwellers.”


5. Biography:


Ana Rosa Chagas Cavalcanti Ph.D. Candidate at the Delft University of Technology with funds from CAPES. Her intellectual reflection finds its roots in a field research started in 2008 in the Favelas of Brazil, where she graduated in 2009 in Architecture and Urbanism with a thesis on the Favela Sururu de Capote.


[i]Alexander. C. (1999). “The Origins of Pattern Theory: The Future of the Theory, and the Generation of a Living World.” IEEE Software, 16 (5): 71–82. doi:10.1109/52.795104.Page 74.

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