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How much NeuroArchitecture can be found on Public Housing? - Part I

By Andréa de Paiva

This article is based on the author's visits to public housing projects in Brazil to a consulting job performed at FGV Projetos.

Have you ever asked why public housing complexes get degraded so quickly? Just a few years being habited and most complexes start looking worn out. Even more dramatic than that, have you ever had the chance to talk to any of the inhabitants of suck spaces? In less than one year occupying their apartments many of them already dream about leaving.

 Public Housing Complex in Batatais, São Paulo
Public Housing Complex in Batatais, São Paulo

The Housing Program Minha Casa Minha Vida, released by the federal government in 2009, subsidizes the acquisition of habitation for the low income families in Brazil. The program is divided in different income groups and the lowest ones are the ones with more subsidy. In cases of population that come from slums, for instance, they can get the apartment for free.

 Playground of a Housing Complex in Sorocaba, São Paulo
Playground of a Housing Complex in Sorocaba, São Paulo

We interviewed inhabitants of a public housing complex built to house people from a slum. In less than one year living there, they were considering going back to the slum instead of staying at their apartments. According to them, the life they had as a community on the slum had a better sense of neighborhood and more respect that was not felt in the complex. The drug use on the dark stairways, apartment robbery, violence,  dirt, disrespect and vandalism are part of their day to day life on the public housing complex.

After several visits and interviews, it is possible to conclude some relations between the public housing projects and NeuroArchitecture. Such projects to the low income population are generally designed by architects and other professionals that do not live nor have lived in similar conditions. On the other hand, we already know that, although our brain follow some standardized  hard-wired behaviors, we are also influenced by other factors, like genetics and the experiences we have thorough in our lives. This means that our culture and every thing we experience are transforming our brains (neuroplasticity) and, consequently, this will affect our behavior [1].

On account of that, in order to design to someone or to a group, we must try to understand the persons' or the group's mindset. A solution that was successful to some might not suit others. That is the reason why it is important that architects, among other professionals, develop abilities of ToM (Theory of Mind) and empathy [2]. It is necessary for architects to be able to put themselves on their clients shoes, be able to feel like others feel to create spaces that fulfill each group's necessities and not our own.

Who said that an apartment a little bigger than 35m²  is enough to satisfy a whole family? Who said that 2 or 3 rooms are enough? Who said that a concrete building, with neutral colors and narrow passages will stimulate collaboration among neighbors? 

As long as we keep looking at architecture only through economical's and industrial production's lenses, it will keep loosing its humanity. An architecture that is inhuman will not generate identification, attachment nor belonging, which are essential to the housing life quality. Inhuman architecture will only stimulate similar inhuman behaviors [3]. One thing leads to the other and as long as this cicle is not interrupted, the wellbeing at the public housing complexes will keep suffering grievous consequences like those we saw at the complexes we visited.

The relation between NeuroArchitecture and public housing is very complex and this article is just the beginning of it. That is why we will soon discuss other issues regarding the subject in other articles so that we can help architects to face the huge challenge of designing public housing processes! 

Read the second part of this article: Parte II

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