Karl Sharro







Paraisópolis and the Spirit Level 













What would Le Corbusier have made of Tuca Vieira’s stirring photograph of Paraisópolis? I imagine the modernist master sketching a few towers rising over the site once occupied by the favela then, for good measure, scratching out the apartment building next door and re-designing that as well. This is a plausible scenario, remember Le Corbusier’s famous dictum? Architecture or revolution! Le Corbusier’s vision was revolutionary in its own right; he dared to break away from the stale past and embraced technology and industrialisation in the hope that architecture would contribute to higher standards of living for all. And, for a long part of the 20th century, it did. But, as Paraisópolis reminds us, the grand modernist ambitions have not yet been achieved.


Despite that, there seems to be little appetite for such ambition in the West today. In fact, a decidedly anti-progressive zeitgeist prevails nowadays causing us to look to the future with anxiety and restlessness. To make matters worse, the realm of ideas has ceased to be a source of inspiration and is now preoccupied with making the case against progress and warning of the folly of tampering with the human condition. That this conservative project is presented as radical only adds insult to injury.


The Spirit Level is the flavour of the day in pseudo-radicalism, succeeding earlier works such as Happiness and Affluenza as the new big idea. In the recent tradition of ‘a theory of everything books’, its authors contend that income inequality is the root of every social problem that there is. The authors appropriated the notion of inequality, a central preoccupation of radical thinkers for centuries, and then turned it from a political idea into a therapeutic one. Their explanation for the correlation between inequality and social problems is the psychological impact of inequality which causes stress and anxiety!


Writing recently in The Guardian, Robert Booth suggested that all the critique that The Spirit Level received since its publication was orchestrated by right-wing think tanks that were disturbed by the idea of inequality gaining currency. But Booth is wrong to dismiss the critique, it’s the left’s own cynicism about progress that has allowed the right to monopolise the discussion on economic growth. The Spirit Level’s suggestion that there will be no further benefit to economic growth in the west has played right into the hands of its right-wing critics. The pseudo-science in The Spirit Level was easy to challenge, but far more insidious is its suggestion that there is no benefit to further economic growth in the west.


Let’s examine this in relation to architecture to illustrate this point. House building in the UK has fallen to historic lows: since 1981 the number of homes built has fallen short of the increase in households. In the last three years, house building has fallen to its lowest annual rate since 1946. There is now a backlog caused by years of undersupply illustrating the previous government’s insufficient housing projections.

The main cause of the decline was government policy, under both Labour and Conservative administrations, with the private sector unable to compensate for the shortfall. This contributed to the large increases in house prices seen over the past two decades. But inflation in house prices cannot be equated with real growth. Government after government failed to increase the house building figures, reflecting one important side of the decline of productivity of the British economy.


Architects in turn have withdrawn almost completely out of the housing debate. Le Corbusier used to agitate and lobby politicians to allow him to realise his visionary schemes. Today we’re content with building small housing projects here and there in a self-congratulatory manner that celebrates the ‘sensitivity’ of the design, entirely oblivious to the fact that all those superficial additions barely make any impact. There is a huge opportunity out there but a combination of lack of political will and a bankruptcy in architecture thinking means that there is little chance of actually addressing housing undersupply.

But things are different elsewhere. The trouble with Tuca Vieira’s photograph is that it tells just a small part of the story it means to represent. A photograph is but a frozen moment of time purposefully clipped from the real world. I like to think of it as depicting a moment in Brazil’s history that will soon be gone forever. Behind the scene, the Brazilian economy continues to grow


at a phenomenal rate accompanied by an astounding housing boom. Over the past few years, millions of Brazilians bought their own homes for the first time and there is a palpable sense of dynamism in the country. Places like Paraisópolis will disappear eventually as Brazil continues its progress.

But let’s pause and consider how the West sees the development of Brazil. When the BBC recently reported on the housing boom there, its tone was doom-laden with frequent warnings about how this transformation can go wrong. The West has become so uncomfortable with the idea of progress that it constantly projects its own insecurities onto other societies. Thankfully, such dour interventions are ignored by countries like Brazil and China intent on lifting their populations out of poverty and ensuring a prosperous future.


By all means, let’s elevate equality as a political ambition but let’s not divorce it from material progress. In the topsy-turvy world of The Spirit Level, we can demolish the high-rise apartments and extend the favela over its remains and somehow this will magically resolve all the problems implied by the photograph. In fact, such projects are already being designed at architecture schools in the UK; the ‘stylish slum’ has become a genre of its own. But if we are serious about equality, we must be more ambitious. The genuine challenge for architects today is to imagine new ways of building cities that would allow us to provide decent housing for a growing population, the image of Paraisópolis is a reminder of how pressing this task is. Architecture or revolution? Let’s choose a revolution in architecture.


Karl Sharro 2011


First published at World Architecture News.