Architecture Without Architects

Since I was 14 years old, I’ve been fascinated by travel and design. Therefore, when I started to study urban design and planning, I wanted to participate in design projects around the world. I’ve travelled to developing countries like India, Peru, Turkey, China and Brazil — and this is when I first learned about “architecture without architects.”

One example of architecture without architects is a phenomenon that can be observed in many cities around the world: the building of slums. Slums arise when people appropriate a piece of land, and without the funds to pay for a design expert, design and build their own homes and neighborhoods.

split shot favela

The agglomeration of houses many times creates interesting in-between spaces. Those spaces are not necessarily planned, but are made useful (such as the staircase on the right) and are often decorated.

In October 2013, I had the opportunity to visit the Brazilian slums (called “favelas”) in a case study for my university. I spent a few weeks visiting several favelas, including Rocinha and Santa Marta, both in Rio de Janeiro. Rocinha is the largest favela in Brazil and home to more than 200,000 people. Santa Marta has a population of 8,000 and is the first pacified favela in Brazil, which has since become a tourist attraction. Both favelas were founded and created by the people of Brazil and function on their own, with shopping districts, housing, parks, grocery stores and their own motorbike-taxi systems.

Spending time in these favelas made me realize that things we consider unattractive or ‘poor’ may become fascinating once we understand their origins and why they were constructed. The beauty and success of architecture without architects, particularly in the favelas, is based on the fact that every built and un-built element has a reason and function. For instance, homes are built to protect the interior from high temperatures. Blocks of concrete allow homes to stay fresh in the hottest time of the year, and windows are located in strategically around the house to provide enough air circulation. Not only that, but the roofs of homes are often utilized — as places to socialize with family and friends, as rooftop gardens, private swimming pools, and even as advertising space for residents’ own personal businesses.


Day and night, streets are always active with children playing, adults socializing, and of various community events.

In order to give their homes more character, the resident people (also called “favelados”) often use a mix of rustic blocks and bricks and colorful murals and tiles. Due to the compact architecture, open spaces in favelas are often crowded. Children and adults are constantly playing in every open space and as soon they can, and favelados who can afford it will create their formal football fields in the middle of their neighborhood.

Some of these neighborhoods have become an empty canvas for both local and outside artists, who decorate the facades of the buildings and streets. Art has become a way to beautify the favelas and create an identity for the place and its people. In doing so, it has changed the image of favelas and favelados, giving them a friendlier, more inviting appeal. The colorful art has not only become a representation of Brazilian culture and their vibrant society, but has also lifted the residents’ spirits and pride of where they come from.

split shot

Houses in favelas start with simple blocks or any material available. People with more resources will transform their houses with modern and unique designs. On the left, a clean and modern home with a covered patio; on the right, a third-story addition made of bottles.

Traveling has given me the opportunity to see different modes of living, many times having to adopt the way of life for another culture and community. The favelas in particular remind me that while we as designers want to give to people what we think they need, sometimes the best design comes from the simple ideas of everyday people.


  1. Scot Shumaker says |

    Delvis, your perceptions are very interesting. I also like the nooks and crannies created by a more organic creation. I think it is important for all designers to ask who will ultimately enjoy and utilize our creations. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Shelby Schroeder says |

    Wonderful piece, Delvis! It’s great to have such well-traveled people on our team who can offer an international perspective. I’m always surprised by what I learn from you!

  3. Helen Anes says |

    Beautiful work!

  4. Favelas are fascinating. You did a very good job walking us thru your experience. This individuals that have created this slums thought about every single detail when they where planning this homes. It does show how amazing we (humans)can work together in moments of need.

  5. I have visited the favelas. The Brazilan people are very friendly and inviting and you have added further positive sentiments to my thoughts and of the favelas. I think their innovation and use of every inch of their space has a lot to do with their connectedness and community that we could learn from. Makes we want to go back for another visit and reminds me of friends that are like family.

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