These are exciting times in Brazil. Next month, the country will host a party of global proportions when 12 of its cities stage soccer's World Cup. Even after the iconic golden trophy is handed over to the winning team in Rio de Janeiro's Maracanã stadium in July and the millions of fans shut off their TVs, the “Marvelous City” will stay in the world spotlight, as the site of the 2016 summer Olympics. As it rushes to get ready for that next party, Rio today is an enormous building site. But it is not just the demand for sports facilities that is providing a host of opportunities for architects from Brazil and elsewhere. Latin America's largest country is enjoying its longest period of political stability and economic growth in decades, GDP expanding by 7.5 percent in 2010 alone. Authorities want to use the attention that comes with staging two of the planet's great mega-events to tout this progress, and that has meant commissions for planning and designing major infrastructure projects, as well as a new generation of civic amenities.
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But in this complex and contradictory country, preparations for the World Cup and Olympics have highlighted both the advances made and the daunting challenges Brazil still faces as it seeks to improve the quality of life of its citizens. For any foreign admirer of the sweeping plans of Oscar Niemeyer and Lúcio Costa for Brasília, the nation's capital, first contact with Brazil's urban centers can come as a shock.

Across this vast nation, cities are plagued by decades of poor design and weak planning. This is the result of a toxic combination of two circumstances: a rapid urbanization—spurred by tens of millions of peasants fleeing drought during the middle of the last century, creating sprawling metropolises such as São Paulo—and a long military dictatorship that seized power 50 years ago, forcing many of the country's best architects into exile and leaving behind a deep economic slump once the generals handed control back to civilians and returned to their barracks in 1985.

The World Cup and Olympics should be accelerants of long-overdue efforts at urban improvements. Last year's mass demonstrations, with citizens' demands for public transport, education, and health services—of a quality matching that of the new soccer stadiums—have provided an incentive for politicians to take risks such as pushing through programs like bus lanes, at the expense of the country's deeply entrenched car lobby. “Brazilians have more money and are consuming more, but the protests highlighted how our cities' development was not accompanied by improvement in the quality of life of people,” says Pedro Rivera of RUA Arquitetos (and head of Columbia University's Studio-X) in Rio de Janeiro. “The protests were a demand for better access to public services. This makes me optimistic.”

The demonstrations highlighted the delicacy of the moment in Brazil. With economic and social betterment come rising expectations, which the government has struggled to meet. But with the soccer tournament just weeks away, the results of Brazil's makeover have been mixed. The status of the architect in public life has declined since the 1964 coup, whose leaders equated the country's Modernist movement with subversion. This might explain why foreign practices have played the lead in preparing the 12 stadiums that will host the World Cup matches. “The first thought of our political class was to look abroad,” says Rio architect Paulo Jacobsen. In Brasília—a UNESCO World Heritage Site—the German office GMP was hired to redesign the national stadium (among others), providing its facade with a striking forest of concrete columns, while Castro Mello, the São Paulo studio that designed the original 1974 venue, was reduced to working on the seating area. It is a pattern being repeated in other cities. Additional foreign offices to benefit from the sporting events include U.S. firms AECOM, which devised the master plan for the Olympics, and Populous, which designed the Arena das Dunas soccer stadium in the northeastern city of Natal.

While sports facilities are being rushed to completion, infrastructure projects such as bus corridors and monorails have been scaled back or dropped altogether. Projects planned for the event, such as a monorail line linking one of São Paulo's airports to the rest of the city's rail network, will not be ready in time. “During the 1980s and 1990s, few public works were executed because of the economic crisis. And when your planners have little to do, you lose your ability to plan,” says Rodrigo Prada, who monitors World Cup preparations for Sinaenco, Brazil's national association of architects and engineers. “Now we are paying the price. There will be a positive legacy from the World Cup, but it will be less than it could have been with better planning.”

Because of the 2016 Olympic Games, the greatest effort at urban transformation is taking place in Rio de Janeiro, which suffered a long decline after the capital moved to Brasília in 1960. The main Olympic site is controversially located far from downtown but comes with a promise that it will leave a legacy of better transportation links between the city's traditional core and its semi-detached but fast-growing western zone, where the athletes' village is under construction. Meanwhile, a major redevelopment project is under way in the old port neighborhood near downtown. Here docks and warehouses are being repurposed as much needed commercial, residential, and cultural spaces—including Santiago Calatrava's Museum of Tomorrow—intended to redirect some of the city's growth from the periphery to the center.

“Rio is going to benefit more than cities just hosting the Cup,” says Jacobsen, whose studio, Bernardes & Jacobsen Arquitetura (now Jacobsen Arquitetura), designed the new Museu de Arte do Rio in the port district. For this native Carioca whose first architectural practice was located in one of the city's infamous favelas, the most exciting development is the effort to regain control of the slums from heavily armed drug gangs. As police move into neighborhoods long left to the rule of traffickers, city hall has followed, carrying out infrastructure and social projects to better integrate favelas with the rest of the city after decades of neglect. “This has been very positive,” says Jacobsen. “Favelas are now being viewed differently by the rest of society, and the city is beginning to find solutions for some of the problems of residents living there.” He cites the installation of a funicular in the Dona Marta slum and a cable car in the Complexo do Alemão as examples of how this new approach to the favelas is reshaping the city's mental geography.

But in parallel with this urban integration of the favelas, preparations for the coming mega-events have provided cover for the eviction of tens of thousands of poor residents from their homes in cities across Brazil. The government has relocated these people to distant urban fringes, where it has built most of the 1.5 million houses delivered so far as part of the My House My Life social-housing program. This initiative, set up in 2009 to address a housing deficit estimated to be as high as 8 million units, has been widely condemned by the country's architects for its poor design and lack of attention to residents' social needs. “We are now seeing the results, and they are terrible, at times worse than favelas,” warns Marta Moreira of the São Paulo practice MMBB. “The concept is horrible. There is no attention to infrastructure. These developments lack schools, hospitals, even something as basic as a local bakery. It is a pattern we know does not work.”

Bankrolled by cheap state credit and focused on quantity rather than quality, My House My Life serves the interests of the country's construction firms and not those of residents, argues Francisco Fanucci, a partner at São Paulo–based Brasil Arquitetura. “It is a grotesque repetition of the worst errors from the history of social housing in Brazil. They are building the favelas of tomorrow.” Despite the anger and despair among Brazil's architects about My House My Life, there are pockets of progressive thinking in the public sector. Moreira points to São Paulo's municipal housing secretary Elisabete França whose administration was praised for promoting public housing that took care to include social infrastructure, as exemplified by MMBB's Jardim Edite and the Jardim Lidiane project developed by the local studio Andrade Morettin. These developments both house residents in centrally located neighborhoods rather than on the city's periphery, and incorporate public services such as day-care centers and clinics.

Of potentially wider-ranging impact is the recent revision of the master development plan in São Paulo undertaken by the new mayor, Fernando Haddad. It has won praise for its efforts to reverse decades of urban sprawl in South America's biggest metropolis and increase the density in the city's central regions while prioritizing public transport over the car. Such a change is vital in a city of 11 million people who spend hours each day stuck in smog-spewing traffic jams, but difficult in a country where the auto industry has long been propped up by a succession of governments of all stripes.

With the country's architectural profession operating under several crucial constraints, major challenges to progress remain. Commissions for civic projects from the private sector are relatively few in the absence of the tax incentives for philanthropy like those in the U.S., meaning the public sector maintains a dominant role. And efforts to deliver quality public-sector design remain hobbled by a piece of legislation passed in 1993. Notorious among the country's architects, federal law 8.666 demands that all public contracts at the federal, state, and municipal levels—including those for architectural services—be open to tender, with the lowest bid to be declared the winner.

Drafted during the country's re-democratization process when the dictatorship ended, the legislation's goal was honorable—to combat deeply entrenched corruption in the public sector. But by using the same methodology to select design services that they use to buy the materials to realize them, public authorities have incentivized substandard architecture. “It drags everything down to the lowest level,” laments Marcelo Ferraz of Brasil Arquitetura. “Architecture is not construction. It is intellectual and artistic work. As well as its technical side, it involves creation. And creative work has to be handled in a different manner from the work of someone who sells concrete.” He goes on, “The great error of law 8.666 is to lump them together. The law is so stupid, it does not even understand what architecture is. It disrespects it, and the civic result is suffering in many peoples' lives, because work badly done lasts as long as work well done.”

When a project receives a dispensation from the law, as in the case of Praça das Artes in São Paulo, Brazil's rich design tradition is allowed to flourish, producing memorable contemporary work. Invoking a rigorously policed provision that allows the controversial tender process to be overlooked, the city's municipal government hired Ferraz and his partner Francisco Fanucci to design the award-winning cultural center. A key component in recent efforts to revitalize the city's downtown region, the building reemphasizes the value of public space and marks the return of intelligent civic design little seen in São Paulo since the inauguration in 1982 of Lina Bo Bardi's much-lauded SESC Pompeia (see page 90), another cultural center that the Modernist master forged from an abandoned old factory.

Ferraz and Fanucci have several similar projects in development across Brazil, after similar suspensions of law 8.666. One is a museum in the northeastern city of Recife celebrating the life of folksinger Luiz Gonzaga. “We would not be doing these projects if we had been obliged to bid on price,” says Fanucci. “But suspending the bidding process is very complex and difficult, and this acts as a disincentive to authorities.”

The Museu de Arte do Rio and Praça das Artes in São Paulo stand as evidence of how a new approach by the public sector to contracting architects could be hugely beneficial to the texture and experience of Brazil's cities. A new generation of talented young architects may have missed much of the bonanza from the World Cup and Olympics, but it is itching to find such solutions to the country's urban ills. The need to do so is vital. “The Praça das Artes is all very well,” says its creator, Ferraz. “But São Paulo alone needs dozens of Praças das Artes.” It is a daunting challenge, but in Brazil's contradictory manner, Ferraz's comment hints at immense potential.

Based in São Paulo, Tom Hennigan is the South America correspondent for The Irish Times.