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David Chambers & Kevin Haley

As the world gets smaller, it’s not only the work that must look beyond national boundaries. Studio-X is a crucial global forum for cross-country, cross-cultural, cross-discipline exchange of ideas and practice that resonate with the UK experience

On our most recent visit to Rio de Janeiro, we were invited to give a talk about our practice at Studio-X Rio – a new think tank dedicated to the future of our cities. Since March 2011, Studio-X Rio has been located in Rio’s downtown area, the heart of the city’s World Cup and Olympic-inspired urban renewal. Like London’s Olympic preparations for 2012, Rio is using these mega events to rejuvenate run down and neglected areas of the city. 

Also like London, Rio has its detractors. The new sanitising developments, they say, disregard the history and culture of the local inhabitants of Brazil’s second city. Amid this continuing debate, Studio-X Rio is interested in the role of cross-cultural, cross-disciplinary, and cross-continental exchanges in the urban transformation of this city – and others in Brazil and across Latin America. 

This collaborative approach resonates with the thinking and cultural mission behind our own practice and our projects like the ‘Gopher Hole’. This is a forum for critical debate about architecture, art, design, culture and society, which we founded in London in 2010 in collaboration with curator Beatrice Galilee. Its agenda is to find new ways of exploring ideas in popular culture through a rolling programme of exhibitions, events, talks and screenings. As a young British architecture and design practice we see such initiatives, outside the usual institutional platforms, as vital for debate. 

Interdisciplinary work is increasingly pervasive. Whether in London or Rio, it is important to talk openly and inclusively about the problems and processes of architecture, not just the traditional discipline that begins and ends with the design of a building. Two years in, it is interesting to see how Studio-X 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.

David Chambers and Kevin Haley, Aberrant Architecture

The first two years
Pedro Rivera, director, Studio-X Rio

After a long stagnation Brazil is going through a deep process of transformation. In the exquisite city of Rio de Janeiro part of that, especially now, are the challenges of planning the 2016 Olympic Games and their legacy. This includes important interventions in urban mobility and investment in the slums and the port area, which will have a profound impact.

Studio-X Rio is at the centre of that discussion. We opened our doors in March 2011, in the heart of the city’s downtown. Supported by the City of Rio and private companies it was set up as part of Dean Mark Wigley’s Studio-X Global Network. An initiative of Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation (GSAPP) in New York, it has a number of global studios in fast developing cities which are dedicated to exploring their future. 

Studio-x:  Investigations into the city and explorations of new ideas, all the time bringing in the public, architects, developers and artists
Studio-x: Investigations into the city and explorations of new ideas, all the time bringing in the public, architects, developers and artists

‘At Studio-X architect, developer, and government official can sit down together as they never have before’

So we encompass both the city and the global view. Studio-X Rio covers a great spectrum of topics and acts as a hub where professionals, academics, locals, decision makers, students, institutions, artists, entrepreneurs, and communities find a neutral space to discuss and collaborate. In Rio it is difficult for young architects to enter the market, which is dominated by real estate. But at Studio-X architect, developer, and government official can sit down together as they never have before. 

We also borrow from Studio-X cities with lectures and exhibitions: we have one coming up on Ghana modernism from New York, we worked with the Netherlands Architecture Institute on a 24 hour workshop on unsolicited architecture which was adapted for use in Studio-X Mumbai. The more diverse the people and the institutions we collaborate with, the more productive and challenging the conversations become. 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 opened to the public.

The City of Rio  has given us a concession on the building which is a traditional 19th century building squeezed onto a colonial Portuguese plot. We have four floors in this long-renovated historical building – measuring only 4m by 30m – facing the recently renovated Tiradentes Square. It houses a small street-level gallery, a place for workshops and a small reading room on the first floor, a meeting room and small office on the mezzanine, and both an auditorium and two small rooms for short residencies on the upper level. The bunch of small spaces at the back means that even with a few people it can feel warm while it also works when you have a crowd.

During the day it acts both as an exhibition gallery and a place for work and research; at night it becomes a lively hub for the most intense discussions. Sometimes activities are related to GSAPP and Columbia University’s academics, sometimes they are developed by our team in Rio, sometimes other people and institutions propose ideas. Most of the programme is dedicated to exploring new ideas  to test how research and design can unfold into different sets of activities through collaborations. Rather than presenting final results, Studio-X is interested in the processes and how cross-cultural, cross-disciplinary and cross-continental exchanges contribute to each other. Risk is part of the experiment. 



The network was launched to engage the Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation with parts of the world undergoing rapid urban transformation: East and South Asia, the Middle East, Eastern Europe, Latin America, and Africa. Since 2008, Studio-X spaces have been established in New York, Beijing, Amman, Mumbai, and Rio de Janeiro. It has labs in São Paulo and Tokyo, and plans to open locations in Moscow, Istanbul, and Johannesburg. 

The Studio-X Global Network permanently connects Columbia University and the regions, allowing GSAPP to learn about the challenges and urban strategies adopted by these cities. It also demonstrates a deep commitment to the institutions, experts, and local communities through collaborative research and design studies. All Studio-X directors are locals. 

At global level, this network allows the different regions to confront local experiences, building unprecedented bridges of knowledge-sharing, with an impact on the approaches and technologies these regions use to deal with these challenges. Studio-X is a platform for collaboration and exchange between different communities, both at local and global scales.

In 2012, seven studios and an amazing team of GSAPP professors visited and worked at Studio-X Rio to develop academic projects for the city through collaborations with local communities. Other architecture schools like Rio’s FAU UFRJ, PUC Rio, ENSA-Versailles and ETH Zurich also engaged with Studio-X Rio and developed common activities. 

‘We put up a tent in the parking bays outside and in 2011 a group of artists lived for a month in the space, cooking collectively twice a week with dishes improvised from the ingredients brought by members of the public’

On our doorstep is Tiradentes Square and changes to it over the last few years, with the removal of the fences and bus terminals, have allowed us to be part of reinvigorating the space. Of course our events spill onto it. We have also put up a tent in the parking bays outside and in 2011 a group of artists lived for a month in the space, cooking collectively twice a week with dishes improvised from the ingredients brought by members of the public. More recently artist Raul Mourão built a series of kinetic sculptures – referencing the fences that were removed from the square and across Rio. 

We are still young but in less than two years, Studio-X Rio has already developed around 40 lectures and panels with leading thinkers such as Caroline Bos, Djamel Klouché, Francine Houben, Juan Herreros, Jürgen Mayer, and nArchitects  and has hosted 12 national and international workshops, 11 exhibitions on art and architecture, 10 events at Tiradentes Square, and numerous book launches, screenings, etc.
During this time, Studio-X Rio established itself as a reference for the city. The concept of a platform to connect people and ideas into a global network fits precisely with this moment of transformation for Rio. My wish is that Studio-X could play a role in the city’s future make things flow more easily to help us face the future better. Studio-X Rio is dedicated to generating new possibilities of exchange and collaboration and to feeding the field from which the city will think and develop its future. There’s a lot to do, come and collaborate with us.


Cities, in particular historic centres, need to be revisited and reordered in new propositions, to give them legitimacy in faster times, writes Washington Fajardo.  

The re-urbanisation from 2010 of Tiradentes Square constituted the most symbolic action of the project to revitalise the area, a product of a partnership between the City of Rio de Janeiro, the Ministry of Culture and the Inter-American Development Bank, through the Monumenta Programme. 

Tiradentes Square was given to the people of Rio de Janeiro completely re-urbanised, with new street lighting and recovered ambience – through the relocation of 11 bus stands which had occupied the entire square, and the removal of the fences that once enclosed it. Parking lots were converted into pedestrianised areas.

Today we have a square appropriate for the population that circulates freely or contemplates, in the shadows, a reborn vitality.

However, the exclusively physical approach is not enough.  A place that was lethargic for over two decades needed real vitality. A recently restored house that belonged to the city provided the opportunity to dedicate a space to design – the IRPH  (Institute of Rio Human Heritage).

To talk about design in a body dedicated to cultural heritage is a challenge.  Design is an essential of Brazilian culture, particularly Rio’s ‘carioca’ culture. In the city of Rio de Janeiro are important foundations of the history of Brazilian design, such as the establishment of the first school of higher education – ESDI, the School of Higher Education for Industrial Design – and the decisive presence of designer Aloísio Magalhães.

But, when talking about heritage, are we solely talking about inheritance and a look at our past?  Or can we think about heritage as a catalyst for ideas and actions for the future? 

Tiradentes Square during carnival
Tiradentes Square during carnival

If heritage is not only that which is built, it is not restricted to colonial architecture and the urban configuration of an era, but instead embraces a whole array of knowledge and traditions that go beyond what can be touched. Then the relationship between built heritage and our culture becomes even more complex.  So design is an element of our culture, and that’s how it should be treated.

But design also has the power to integrate; to create connections through its systemic thought, connections that otherwise would be impossible.

Cities like Rio, New York and London have a ‘je ne sais quoi’ of chaos that makes them dynamic.  They are cities with attractions, be it natural, cultural, urban or all of these.  But they are also cities where you can sense the possibility of change; to progress either individually or as a group; to transform. From the moment when we immerse ourselves in our culture and seek to occupy and improve degraded areas, even as we value it, we can contribute decisively to these transformations.

The establishment of the Carioca Centre of Design (CCD) in Tiradentes Square is part of this initiative. Tiradentes Square has been conceived as a space for the manifestation of the creative economy in Rio de Janeiro, which has key institutions in the area.  Since the inauguration of CCD we have seen the opening of young designers’ offices, new restaurants and concert houses, new and regenerated hotels.  It is a space of transformation, in which the Carioca Centre of Design has a decisive role.

In 2011, a partnership between CCD and Studio-X, of GSAPP Columbia University, was sealed, and today they share Number 48 Tiradentes Square. The space is now officially used as a reference centre to investigate the role of design and cities, both locally and globally.
And so we hope to continue the development of Tiradentes Square as a singular place.

To be in a restored house, historically relevant, with a contemporary activity that encourages creativity, is a step forward in the direction of this vision of heritage with eyes for the future.  We have in heritage an asset that can and should be understood as an anchor for the future of our cities and institutions. 

By Washington Fajardo with Felipe Cristiano Reigada and Paula Oliveira Camargo.
Translated by Fernanda Balata.

Washington Farjardo is president of Rio World Heritage Institute and past director of heritage, urban intervention, architecture and design, Rio de Janeiro City Hall