Filling the gap

Since 2011, Studio-X Rio has been bringing together professionals, academics, decision makers, students, and the general public to confront the city’s most pressing challenges.


Architecture / Roberto Boettger

When eyes turn to Rio de Janeiro, and the rest of Brazil, in light of an increasingly stable economical and political powerhouse, the opening of a new market for architecture becomes a possibility for an international audience. However, things don’t change so dramatically from one day to the next. Architects in the city have long been struggling in the shadows of stylistic nostalgia, hampered by archaic planning policies, lack of institutional initiatives and bureaucratic innovation. At a time when these two presents must be reconciled into a single future, the gap in the architecture discourse becomes apparent. Slowly filling this gap with a much-needed critical platform is Studio-X Rio, a satellite project of Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation (GSAPP).

Top: Raul Mourão’s series of kinetic sculptures spill onto the adjacent Tiradentes Square, further entangling urban space and architecture forum. Above: Students from Columbia University’s GSAPP discuss proposals for the city

“Brazil is the future of urban transformations”, Mark Wigley, dean of the GSAPP, tells a local newspaper. It is with such grand visions that since 2011 Studio-X Rio has been bringing together professionals, academics, decision makers, students, and the general public to confront the city’s most pressing challenges. Located in a refurbished historic building in Rio’s downtown area, the heart of the city’s World Cup and Olympic-inspired urban renewal, it is interested in the role of cross-cultural, cross-disciplinary, and cross-continental exchanges in the urban transformation of the city — and other cities in Brazil and Latin America.

Work produced by students from the GSAPP is exhibited to the public

For director Pedro Rivera, “it’s vital that communities perceive Studio-X as an open space where they can actively and meaningfully participate, so every activity at Studio-X Rio is free and open to the public”. These participations take the form of exhibitions, workshops, book launches, research and exchange of experience. Wigley believes this model represents a new form of acting upon the city. Before, research was concentrated inside the academic departments of universities and now this practice starts to expand onto the streets, making the city the biggest laboratory.


One of the recent events on the agenda of Studio-X Rio was a panel on “inclusive urbanism”, focusing on favela upgrades and compensatory damages for garbage pickers. Panelists included a planner from the federal government’s Growth Acceleration Program (PAC), a Rocinha Favela resident, a Columbia student studying the Jardim Gramacho landfill closure, and a representative from the investment bank Caixa Econômica Federal. Rio de Janeiro, like London’s Olympic preparations for 2012, is using its sports mega events to rejuvenate run down and neglected areas of the city. These developments, however, have stirred an opposition which points out the lack of participatory planning and disregard for the history and culture of local inhabitants.

Columbia University’s satellite project Studio-X Rio is located in a refurbished historic building in Rio de Janeiro’s downtown area

The lecture series entitled Nova Arquitetura Carioca [“New Architecture from Rio de Janeiro”] gives the stage for local architectural practices to bring their voices out to a wider audience. Recent speakers have included Carla Juaçaba, architect of the Rio+20 pavilion for the UN conference on sustainability, and Bernardo Jacobsen, architect of the newly inaugurated Museu de Arte do Rio [“Rio Art Museum”]. This is a welcome opportunity for younger architects, who have great difficulty in entering a market dominated by real estate.


Prominent international figures are also continuously brought into the scene. Some of these have included Caroline Bos (UN Studio), Djamel Klouche (l’AUC), Francine Houben (Mecanoo), Willem Jan Neutelings (Neutelings & Riedijk), Irma van Oort (KCAP), Juan Herreros, and Jüergen Mayer. By connecting people and ideas into a global network, building unprecedented bridges of knowledge-sharing, these events have an impact on the approaches and technologies that local architects use to solve the challenges of the profession.

Students from the GSAPP and Rio’s CAU PUC collaborate on an installation

Studio-X Rio’s gallery spaces constantly host exhibitions, always accessible to the public during the daytime. At times these events spill onto the adjacent Tiradentes Square, further entangling urban space and architecture forum. An example is artist Raul Mourão’s series of kinetic sculptures, which makes reference to the dismantled fences from the square and from across various public spaces in Rio.


The academic activities are not limited to Columbia University and the GSAPP studios. Other architecture schools like Rio’s FAU UFRJ, PUC Rio, ENSA-Versailles and ETH Zurich have also been engaged with Studio-X Rio. These intra-institutional studios present an opportunity for students and academics from diverse backgrounds to participate in the resolution of questions, exchange and test of ideas about the city.

Local architects Bernardo Jacobsen, Guilherme Lassance, Pedro Varella and Carla Juaçaba discuss their recent projects in the lecture series Nova Arquitetura Carioca ["New Architecture from Rio de Janeiro"]

Mark Wigley is not wrong to be over optimistic about the potential of such a platform. In the Netherlands, for instance, the institutions that eventually merged into The Netherlands Architecture Institute (NAi), sought, in the 1980s, to bring trend-setting architects and critics from abroad to produce solutions to specific Dutch case studies. The result was a generation of Dutch architects and students who could deal with concrete problems at the high-level of international standards. A more recent case is the Danish Architecture Centre (DAC), which, by carrying out Denmark’s national architectural policy of 2007, has not only been playing a primary role in the success of contemporary young Danish architects but has also greatly increased public interest in architecture.

Caroline Bos of UNStudio was part of the lecture series Panorama da Arquitetura Holandesa ["Panorama on Dutch Architecture"]

Studio-X Rio is not to the same magnitude as these governmental institutions, for it functions first and foremost as an academic forum. However, it has been making up for some of the slowness of Rio institutions that should be functioning at these standards. While the Rio de Janeiro branch of Instituto de Arquitetos do Brasil [“Brazilian Institute of Architects”] and the Conselho de Arquitetura e Urbanismo [“Council of Architecture and Urbanism”] provide, to a certain degree, activities and events, they fail to inspire initiatives on local, national and global levels to promote and include the participation of the many parties involved in architecture and construction, both private and public. It is in these fertile grounds that Studio-X Rio has been finding its way and, in the process, defining itself.

Exhibition “São Casas” by artist Luiza Baldan

It has become clear that the architecture discipline is demanding a new melody from the city of samba, both from a restless local young generation and from an eager foreign audience. In the fashion of a traditional samba circle (roda de samba), the solution for the complexities of today’s metropolitan Rio are perhaps to be found in the harmonic composition of an interdisciplinary arrangement. Studio-X Rio has become a hothouse for this type of debate, acting as a creative voice in the city, encouraging intelligent thinking and ultimately demonstrating new possibilities within Rio’s rich cultural fabric at a time of great change. Roberto Costa, architect

Panel on "inclusive urbanism", focusing on favela upgrades and compensatory damages for garbage pickers

Panel on "inclusive urbanism", focusing on favela upgrades and compensatory damages for garbage pickers