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Meia-água: producing space and kinship in an irregular housing subdivision in Rio de Janeiro

Thomas Cortado


As owners of a land plot, the poor families living in Rio de Janeiro’s loteamentos periféricos (“peripheral housing subdivisions”) have evolved their own unique ways of using their land, often with scant regard for building regulations. This is the case of the meia-água, a rectangular single-story backyard construction with a mono-pitched roof. At first sight, it seems people build meia-águas simply as a means to lower construction costs, but in doing so, they offer an insight into the socio-spatial hierarchies and kinship dynamics that shape the production of space. Thus, as the family move from the meia-água at the rear to the true house at the front of the plot, the former may be abandoned completely, turned into a workshop for small-scale economic activities, or provide a means to divide the land. People would also allow their married children and ageing parents to build or occupy meia-águas, so that they can take care of one another without compromising each other’s privacy. In this case, the land plot has a centripetal effect on the “configuration of houses”.

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“Differing and deferred urbanization” in Brazil’s urban peripheries

1While many studies describe family life in Brazilian cities, we know very little about how family dynamics interfere with the production of urban space. Inheriting from a very influential Marxist tradition (Arantes 2009), Brazilian Urban Sociology tends to explain the production of urban space by focusing on labor, that is, on the organization of productive relations within Brazilian capitalism. This article seeks to highlight the role of kinship, not as a consumer but as a producer of urban space – in the case of the classic object of Marxist sociology in Brazil, the “urban periphery”.

2Brazilian sociology uses the term “periphery” (periferia) for the subdivisions located in the rural-urban fringe of large cities, lacking basic urban infrastructure, where poor people are able to access housing through self-construction (Maricato 1979, Kowarick 1979, Bonduki & Rolnik 1979, Santos 1980, Chinelli 1980). Far from the urban centers, in areas with no infrastructure, poor families, mostly newcomers from the countryside, make their houses and improvise some collective urban equipment, expending their labor during their free time (Oliveira 1987). In other words, their self-building practices transfer the cost of housing to working-class families. Brazilian Marxist sociologists interpret self-construction as “a survival of ‘natural economy’ practices within cities” (ibid: 36). Far from expressing the “creative genius” of the Brazilian working classes, these practices demonstrate how limited their residential choices are.

3Though we should not fall into the “populist” trap of exalting self-construction without seeing the structures of domination responsible for making these practices necessary, we cannot deny the existence of distinct logics at work among self-building practices, related to the specific sociability of the dominated populations. In fact, studies conducted in different national contexts have already highlighted the importance of the family in the production of urban space. Looking at the system of concessions in Western Africa, Emile Lebris and his team revealed “family strategies of urbanization,” which “originally commanded practices of appropriation of space and were defined in relation to and often against official urban planning policies” (Le Bris et al. 1985: 13). They used the concept of “residential system” to describe how urban planning, residential segmentation and family segmentation interacted. In Southern Europe, other studies have stressed the role of the family in providing access to housing (Maloutas 1995; Allen 2006; Pfirsch 2011a). In describing the distribution of social elites within the city of Naples, Pfirsch exposed how their sociability, which emphasizes closeness among kin, prevented the emergence of a luxurious periphery (Pfirsch 2011b). In order to indicate how these interactions between urban planning, residential segmentation and family life are displayed in Brazilian peripheries, this article take as a case study a type of construction highly popular in such areas: the meia-água.

4It is based on a 20-month period of field research conducted in Jardim Maravilha, a typical “peripheral housing subdivision” (loteamento periférico) of Rio de Janeiro, between 2014 and 2016. During these investigations, I visited the entire housing subdivision, took pictures of streets and houses, and conducted in-depth interviews with approximately 50 residents (besides countless more informal conversations). I also did research in public and private archives, and interviewed public agents involved in the housing subdivision policies. This ethnographic material served as the basis for my PhD thesis in social anthropology on “the politics and poetics of urbanization in the urban periphery” (Cortado 2018a). I would like to thank CAPES (Coordination for the Improvement of Higher Education Personnel) and FAPESP (The São Paulo Research Foundation, process n. 2018/12573-9) for supporting this research.

Figure 1 – Jardim Maravilha, a “peripheral housing subdivision” (2018)

Figure 1 – Jardim Maravilha, a “peripheral housing subdivision” (2018)

Sources: Environmental Systems Research Institute (ESRI), Instituto Pereira Passos (IPP).

5Located more than 40 km from the city center, in the West Zone, Jardim Maravilha arose in the early fifties as a private housing development (Figure 1 and Figure 2). At that time, the area surrounding Jardim Maravilha belonged to Rio de Janeiro’s “Rural Zone”. Although the municipal government had officially approved the project, Jardim Maravilha remained no more than a maze of small roads lost in the middle of the forest for decades. Some land plots were delimited by wooden stakes and barbed wire. The “paradoxical efficiency” of subdivision laws helps explain this situation (Bueno 2004). Although the law formally obliged the subdivision developers to implement the infrastructure works (paving, water and sewage systems, etc.), they did not stipulate any penalties for violation of the contract or any legal device to ensure the execution of these projects. In fact, Jardim Maravilha’s urbanization dragged on for decades, until the residents started to protest in the late seventies. Since then and to this day, the local authorities have been executing public works, often as an outcome of clientelist deals. However, public works reach only parts of the subdivision and do not promote an integrated urbanization: in comparison with the rest of the city, including urbanized slums, indicators of urban quality remain very low in Jardim Maravilha (Table 1). In my PhD thesis, I called this pattern urbanização diferida, “differing and deferred urbanization” (Cortado 2018a).

Table 1 – Urban and sociological profile of Jardim Maravilha (2010)

Table 1 – Urban and sociological profile of Jardim Maravilha (2010)

Source: Instituto Brasileiro de Geografia e Estatística (IBGE), Census 2000 and 2010

6Urbanização diferida affects the way in which people appropriate the subdivision’s space. Firstly, due to the lack of infrastructure, land prices have remained relatively low compared to the rest of the city, including favelas, allowing the poorest to access land ownership. As shown in table 1, the population living in Jardim Maravilha is still predominantly poor. Urbanização diferida also affected the pace of occupation, which was delayed: for decades, the population of Jardim Maravilha barely exceeded 5,000 inhabitants, although the subdivision consists of more than 11,000 lots. Today the subdivision contains 18,605 inhabitants, which corresponds to a relatively low density of 4051 inhabitants/km². As a result, for many years the land supply used to exceed demand. The third implication is legal in kind: due to the lack of infrastructure, the owners had no right to build, although they acquired their lot legally, given that the subdivision project was officially approved. In fact, the first constructions were undertaken clandestinely and to this day very few families build their houses legally.

7It is worth remembering that when regulating land subdivision in the early 1930s, the Brazilian state pursued conflicting objectives. It wanted to make the new housing developments look like a “garden city,” which meant increasing land prices. At the same time, though, to eradicate the slums, whose existence challenged the basic principles of hygiene and private property, it aimed to facilitate access to a more decent type of housing (Cortado 2018b). The “proletarian subdivision” (loteamento proletário) law, within which the Jardim Maravilha project was framed, thus provided for the possibility of dividing the most outlying areas of the city into smaller lots of 225 m² (instead of the regular 360m²), since these lots served for the construction of small planned houses, called “proletarian houses” (casas proletárias) (Figure 3). However, the delay in urbanization prevented the “proletarian subdivision” policy from taking hold, making clandestine self-construction the only viable form of gaining access to housing.

Figure 2 – Sample of “proletarian houses” in Rio de Janeiro (1941)

Figure 2 – Sample of “proletarian houses” in Rio de Janeiro (1941)

Source: A Manhã.

8This project of transferring the working class to small hygienic houses on the outskirts of the city encounters a symbol of both success and failure in the meia-água, a very common type of construction in Jardim Maravilha. The typical meia-água is, as its name indicates, a small mono-pitched roof house, shaped like an elongated rectangle, located at the rear of the plots, where it often occupies the entire width. On one hand, the meia-água, as it respects the boundaries of the plot, demonstrates the residents’ compliance with the subdivision rules that the government wished to implement. On the other hand, by failing to comply with the building size and location requirements, the meia-água signifies the failure of the “proletarian housing” (habitação proletária) policy. That is to say, the meia-água synthesizes very well this mixture of legalisms and illegalisms that characterizes the urban peripheries in Brazil. The situation is reminiscent of the African concessions analyzed by Le Bris et al. where “the logic of subdividing according to a geometric pattern prevails but [where] it can also give way to other logics derived from very complex family relations or clientelist relations” (Le Bris et al. 1985: 14).

9What, then, are the logics behind the construction of meias-águas? At first glance, the meia-água is just another case of “architecture of the possible,” the only kind of house to which the poor have access because of their scarce resources. However, this explanation masks family and household logics that motivate the search for a house, as though people build meias-águas only to meet “basic needs.” The purpose of this article is precisely to describe these logics, through a radicalization of the ethnographic approach, in line with what I have called the “new anthropology of the house” (Cortado 2016; cf. also Marcellin 1996, Carsten 1995, 2004). Unlike the studies on residential proximity, which use academic categories such as “residential system” (Le Bris et al. 1985), “vicinality” (Pina-Cabral 2014), “quasi-cohabitation” (Pfirsch 2011), “maisonnée” (Weber 2002, Gollac 2003 ) or “entourage” (Bonvalet 2003), I start here from the categories that the residents themselves use to describe their residential units, such as casa (house/home) or meia-água. That is, I understand the house “not only from a material, obvious point of view, but also because it constitutes a central category of a cultural domain and a symbolic map of ideological representations” (Woortmann 1982: 119). I argue, therefore, for a constant movement between family territories and the culturally accepted notions about the way in which the family should be territorialized – such notions, when self-construction is the prevalent solution, are also tied to aesthetic dispositions and judgments on the house’s appearance, something that Cavalcanti called “building imagination” (Cavalcanti 2007). I believe that the meia-água is an ideal case for analyzing how urban planning, cultural representations and family and domestic practices interact in order to give shape to the Brazilian peripheries.

The ideal of having one’s own house (casa própria)

10Like other working-class Brazilian contexts (Woortmann 1982), the ideology of the nuclear family has a pronounced influence on the residents of Jardim Maravilha, displayed, for example, in the recurrent opposition between familia (“family”) and parentes (“relatives” or “kin”) in their dialogues. The family encompasses a husband and wife couple, united by a tie of alliance, and their children. Relatives, on the other hand, are all the people related to the family by some tie of consanguinity or affinity. Bernard, a construction worker who has lived in Jardim Maravilha since he was a child, once asked me whether I wanted to leave Brazil after finishing my fieldwork. I said no, telling him that my wife and my daughter lived in Brazil, although my mother and my grandparents were living in France. Bernard seemed to understand and approve my choice: “I get it, your relatives are there, but your family is here, your family, I mean, your wife and your daughter, they’re here, your relatives they’re there.” A popular proverb “parente é serpente” (“relatives are snakes”) gives us an idea of how dramatic this opposition might be. More commonly, though, it reverberates in more singular fashion in the life histories of the residents. César, a self-employed worker close to retirement, used to have a casa before moving to Jardim Maravilha, but he left so that he no longer had to live close to his mother-in-law (sogra). “Those living close to their relatives have a very serious problem,” he told me, “you end up living their problems and they, yours,” thus presuming that his relatives’ problems were not his own.

11The house could therefore be seen as the concrete realization of the nuclear model, the “physical counterpart” of the nuclear family, as Woortmann would say (1982: 120). However, the concept of the nuclear family contains various biases (Yanagisako 1979: 178). In fact, even when the relatives/family divide prevails, domestic relations display some degree of complexity due to the fact that these relations, in the context of the housing development, are constructed at the level of the terreno, “land plot”. In my fieldwork, I came across two-story buildings located on the same land plot, occupied by parents and married sons with their respective wives. To my eyes, these buildings held multiple family groups. For my interlocutors, though, they were divided into various houses: in Bernard’s case, for example, there was the lower house, which was his, and the upper house, which belonged to his older son, while his younger sons, still children, lived with him. It is not enough to live in the same building or on the same land to live with your parents: you have to live in the same house or casa.

12Returning to César, who left his first house because he wanted to live further away from his relatives, how he explained this difficult co-habitation is instructive: “My house was separated by a wall from hers. We communicated through the wall, there was even a hole in one wall that meant I could see her living room from my own.” In other words, the problem was not only with the category of relative, it also concerned the practical negotiation of boundaries between domestic spaces. Hence these two examples provide an alternative to the nuclear family model: rather than the house being the “physical counterpart” of the nuclear family, it is the house that constructs the family as a nuclear entity. In other words, the nuclear family only exists through symbolic and architectonic manipulations, which turn on the notion of “privacy” (privacidade), as shown by the case of Arnaldo’s family. Today separated from his wife, Arnaldo has four children: two boys and two girls. Some years ago, the youngest son got a woman from Jardim Maravilha pregnant, which led to her being expelled from her own parents’ house. With nowhere to live, the couple stayed on the land of the husband’s father, Arnaldo. When his granddaughter was born, Arnaldo decided to divide the house with his son: the large bedroom and bathroom would belong to his son, while Arnaldo would have the living room and kitchen. He therefore walled off the door between the bedroom and living room (Figure 3). I asked Arnaldo whether he had blocked it up because it was too “cramped”: “It wasn’t cramped. It’s just that there’s no way, dude, living on top of each other; privacy, there’s just no privacy, you know. You’ve got to have some privacy, right? You want to walk around your own house normally, you want to receive visitors, not have everyone mixing. I’ll tell you something: quem casa quer casa, anyone who marries wants a house’, that’s what I’ve always told you, quem casa quer casa. So I told him: you can have that house, then, son.” Arnaldo didn’t stop there: after he blocked up the door, he opened another one in the old room, now his son’s house, so the latter could enter via the quintal (“yard”). Still not satisfied, he walled off this doorway, demolished a section of the wall that surrounded the plot and made another gate so that his son’s family would have their own entrance (as the plot is located on a street corner, each gate now opens onto a different road).

Figure 3 – Walling off a door, opening a new gate: the “building imagination” of Jardim Maravilha inhabitants

Figure 3 – Walling off a door, opening a new gate: the “building imagination” of Jardim Maravilha inhabitants

Source: Author.

13Arnaldo’s case reveals a series of transformations, at once symbolic and architectural, needed for the relations between his son, daughter-in-law and future grandchild to form a family, in accordance with working-class ideology. Hence the need to think of family life not through a “model” like that of the nuclear family, but through symbolic and architectural processes that construct family life (McCallum and Bustamante 2012) – with the house comprising one such process. Arnaldo’s case also shows that privacy is connected to the “freedom” (liberdade) to behave however you want inside your own domestic space. In your own casa, you can walk around in underwear and invite whoever you want to visit. The “housewife” (dona de casa) Elma was outraged by the fact that neighbors along her street had recently begun to sell the upper floors, or lajes, of their houses to anyone who wanted to build on top. “Where else have you seen this, selling laje?!” Dona Elma exclaimed. “I couldn’t do that, I couldn’t give away my freedom... Who can stand fucking one on top of the other?

14In effect, it is not enough to have a house, you also need freedom. This explains the paradox of renting: someone who rents a place to live has a house but no freedom. Families at the beginning of their life cycle very often have little choice but to rent a place to live, though, since this is the only way they can get a house. Renting takes away the freedom of families because it puts a huge strain on the household budget: when you pay rent, you passa sufoco, or “suffocate”. César was scathing about rent, having spent years renting houses: “If you don’t have a place to live, it’s slavery! When you rent where you live, you’re a slave to rent... And look, the laws are made for those renting out, when you fall behind on your rent, you pay a fortune.” Whether due to the amount being paid, or the fact that you cannot fall behind, rent leads to suffocation. Additionally, those who rent cannot carry out repairs or improvements to the house without asking the owner of the house for permission. In sum, money spent on rent is “money thrown away, wasted, lost forever,” “rent is money that you spend and get nothing in return!” César said. Indeed, the idea that rent is a payment for a certain kind of service, namely the supply of housing, is not really accepted in the working-class universe that I studied. Thus although you may go through a tough period, or “suffocate,” after buying a land, due to the loan payments or the construction costs, the return for this hardship is the promise of a patrimônio (“patrimony”), not only for yourself but for your children too. Dona Eurídice, a “family mother” (mãe de família) who lives “with” her four children, ended up renting a place to live for the first time in her life after she got married: before then, she had lived in the “country” (roça), meaning that she had always lived in her own house. Paying rent “was a real bother,” “every month paying money you don’t have,” though the rent was “really cheap” and the house “very good.” She wanted to “escape renting” (fugir do aluguel), therefore, and eventually moved with her husband to Jardim Maravilha, where she initially suffered a lot due to the housing development’s lack of amenities and services. But owning her own house had one incomparable advantage over renting: it was a patrimony, in the double sense of a capital reserve, which earns money if rented out, and an asset to be handed down. “We’re already getting on a bit,” she explained to me, talking about her son, “one day we’re going to answer God’s call and only the younger will be left [...]. So this will be his patrimony. When we’re gone, he’ll have a source of income too for himself and for his children.

Meia-água: architecture and social hierarchy

15While everyone wants to escape renting, not everyone “has the means” (tem condição) to make a “good house” (casa bonita), in other words, a two-storey house with an exterior finish (Figure 4). The months following the purchase of a plot of land very often comprise a period in the life cycle of families during which they feel “suffocated”. They have to repay the loan on the plot and the house construction entails a cost that can take a toll on the family budget for a long time. They therefore need to develop strategies to meet these expenses, such as adjusting the volume of household spending, saving on everything non-essential, or reducing building costs by beginning with a casinha, a small house made from cheap materials. There are various ways to make a casinha: one of them is to construct a house with just one room, called a cômodo (literally: a “room”, Figure 5). Here one single room serves as living room, bedroom and kitchen all in one, with the bathroom located outside. The cômodo does not even require a structure (foundations and concrete columns), meaning that expenditure on construction materials can be minimized. Nonetheless, there is nothing stopping the family from investing more in the project should they wish: Dona Eurídice and her husband plastered and painted the walls of their cômodo, and even covered it with a concrete floor above. “I used to say all the time: hey everyone, let’s make a nice house, even if it’s small, so it’s not a shack, okay,” she said laughing. Her husband added: “yes, a favela!” “Favela! It can’t be a favela.” Dona Eurídice repeated, “let’s make a nice house. Let’s make it slowly, we built a cômodo, with the idea of enlarging it later.” Here, the “financial squeeze” (aperto), which prevented Dona Eurídice from building the house of which she had always dreamed, combined with her desire for it not to be mistaken for another kind of construction, one seen to be lower in the hierarchy of types of dwelling. Here It is worth mentioning that many people living today in Jardim Maravilha had lived in other types of “precarious settlement” (assentamento precário) over their residential trajectory, including favelas.

Figure 4 – A good house in Jardim Maravilha (2014)

Figure 4 – A good house in Jardim Maravilha (2014)

Source: Author.

Figure 5 – A cômodo (left) and a casa (right) in Jardim Maravilha (2016)

Figure 5 – A cômodo (left) and a casa (right) in Jardim Maravilha (2016)

Source: Author.

16Another way of making a small house is the meia-água. No consensus exists among residents concerning what a meia-água is: whenever I asked, I always received different answers. “A meia-água is... is a house built at the back,” Bernard told me. He continued: “I don’t know why it’s called meia-água [half-water], it should be called a meia-casa [half-house] shouldn’t it?” The builder Júlio, a “long-term resident” (morador antigo) in Jardim Maravilha, replied differently: “A meia-água is a small house! It has a bedroom, living room, kitchen, bathroom, but there’s only one bedroom! [...] It’s called a meia-água because there’s just one bedroom. Now, when there’s no upper concrete floor, it’s also a meia-água. If there’s an upper floor, then it’s a house, the person immediately calls it a house.” The most articulate reply came from César: “it’s called a meia-água because the rainfall drains on one side only [...], it’s a meia-água because it has a small roof that slopes to one side only, it’s enough to protect the person from the weather, he can live there [...]. They live in the meia-água, and they think it’s a house, but it’s not a house, it’s a meia-água. They call it a meia-água because it isn’t a house, [...] it only has three walls, they use the boundary wall to support the sloped roof.” When, however, I asked people to point out the meia-águas found around the housing development, the same kind of dwelling was identified with some frequency: a small one-storey building, located at the rear of the plot, occupying the entire width of the plot and supported by the boundary wall separating the property from the plot behind it, with the roof sloping inward towards the yard of the land plot (Figure 7 and Figure 6). In addition, contrary to the cômodo, the “prototype of the meia-água” has internal divisions, forming, say, a bedroom, kitchen and bathroom. This kind of dwelling represents the “prototype” of the meia-água, “the clearest case of category membership” (Rosh 1978: 36) for this native idea.

Figure 6 – The front of an isolated meia-água (2015)

Figure 6 – The front of an isolated meia-água (2015)

Source: Author

Figure 7 – Three typical meia-águas occupying the same plot (2015)

Figure 7 – Three typical meia-águas occupying the same plot (2015)

Source: Author.

17More importantly, though, my interlocutors always more or less agreed that the meia-água was not exactly a casa – indeed, the word is just as ambiguous as the category casinha (“little house”) itself, which refers not only to a small house but also to a tiny house, a house that has not yet attained the status of a casa. The presence of the prefix meio in the word gave rise to the wordplay between meia-água and meia-casa, “half-water”, “half-house”. In fact, this prefix represents a serious problem, including for the architects who use the category meia-água, since, according to them, a meia-água is a small building, whether or not used as a dwelling, with a mono-pitched roof, with the word água (“water”) designating here the flat surface of the roof. Strictly speaking, then, a meia-água is a building with a (full) single pitch, not a half pitch. By contrast, a house with a gable roof or duas águas, an expression commonplace among architects but seldom used in my fieldwork area, is a house that possesses a dual-pitched roof: that is, two sloped sections of roofing. The main point here is that the meia-água category is used primarily in the context of colonial architecture: in seventeenth-century Brazilian society, the house already functioned as a physical expression of social differences among inhabitants, and the higher the person’s status, the larger their house, and the larger its number of águas (pitches) was expected to be (Figure 8). The house with four pitches (hip roof) thus became a symbol of power and prestige, one of the architectural formulas preferred for the slave-owner’s house , while the gable roofed house became the most common model in urban areas. The category meia-água, as can be seen, mixes two dimensions: architectural, since it defines the building by the structural form of it roof, and social, since the norm would be dual-pitched. A house with just one pitch becomes a house that fails to satisfy the norm, something like a house split down the middle.

Figure 8 – Roof types and social hierarchy during the colonial era

Figure 8 – Roof types and social hierarchy during the colonial era

Source: Author.

18This category is thus deeply connected to the way in which Brazilian society hierarchized dwellings, since the meia-água typically occupied the least favored location: the fundos or rear. At the very beginning of colonization, the tendency of the dominant class was to place the kitchen, a source of heat and dirt, back towards the rear of the plot (Lemos 1989). As the centuries went by, the fundos became the place of not just the kitchen, but also the bathroom, the stables, workshops and the dwelling where slaves and servants slept (Reis Filho 1970). However, these spaces were not always detached from the main building, as happened in the nineteenth century, when the meia-água (also known as an edícula by the architects) became a commonplace element of the Brazilian urban landscape: “the traces of the old slave quarters” had been transferred outside the house and were now found in a small independent building, called an edícula or meia-água.

19The same hierarchical organization of domestic space, with an opposition between front and rear, is found in working-class worlds today (Heye 1980): the kitchen and bathroom tend to be located to the rear, along with other dirty activities (repairs, storage of construction materials). In the case of a “subdivision” (loteamento) like Jardim Maravilha, the very shape of the lots, with a length three times the width (nine by twenty-five meters), seems to induce a division of the internal space between front and back. Moreover, the people who build quitinetes (“bedsits”) on their land to be rented out to “strangers” (estranhos) very seldom place them at the front of the property: the preference will be for the rear. Even if this is merely symbolic. Carlos, owner of a bar, has a house and two quitinetes on his terrain (one of them is an old bedroom that has been renovated): although his house is at the rear and the bedsits closer to the front, when he came to write the address of the bedsits on the gate that gives access to them, he added the word fundos to the house number. It is not unusual, therefore, for former meias-águas, located in the fundos, to become a bedsit, which explains the confusion people sometimes experience: “it must be what we today call a bedsit?” I was asked by one housewife who had lived in the neighborhood a short time.

Configuring domestic-family life through the meia-água

20If we take as a reference point “the prototype of the meia-água,” it is easy to understand the success that this architectural formula enjoyed among residents: 1) it amounts to a small building, which does not require a structure; 2) the use of the boundary wall to the rear of the property as an interior wall enables less expenditure on bricks; 3) it is simple to make, given that the roof uses the inner and outer walls as support. In addition, the roof slope makes drainage of rainwater easier, a very serious problem in a region where flooding happens almost every year. However, the meia-água is not exactly the house in which people want to live: it is another housing solution that people hope is temporary, though it can become definitive for those “without the means”. Hence, many families who arrived in JM, “escaping rent”, began to live in a meia-água, but did not always continue in the meia-água: by placing the meia-água at the rear of the land plot, the families left themselves the freedom to build another house at the front, in the most valorized area of the plot. After moving to the meia-água, and as “money enters” or the “family grows”, the house is gradually built in the desired area until the family is ready to move into it. As well as its potential architectural weaknesses, the meia-água also suffers from not being a planned house. Moreover, it does not allow its owner the opportunity to expand the construction in the future, a possibility associated with the existence of a laje, a concrete upper floor covering the house. The laje represents the prospect of a house’s future expansion: it enables a second story to be built, and it is difficult for a house with just one story to be considered good or well-made by other residents of the area. Conversely, a roof is added when the owners consider that the building’s structure requires no further alteration.

21Residents pursue various strategies, therefore, to match their projects to the reality of the meia-água. They may simply abandon the meia-água after moving to the casa, in which case the meia-água remains “closed” until a new use is found. The meia-água may also be demolished: César bought an area of land that already had a meia-água in the front portion. He lived in the two-roomed meia-água until the house was ready. Afterwards the presence of the meia-água began to bother César, who decided to demolish its walls and use it as a workshop. However, César’s current project is to demolish the entire meia-água and build another one at the back of the property, which will also serve as a workshop. “It’s an opportunity for me to remove these two rooms that I bought when only they existed. Because the house is completely different, the project is completely different to having these rooms here. They disfigure what I want to do here.” However, there is no need for a “project” (projeto) to demolish the meia-água: The continuous expansion of the house, which very often grows towards the rear of the property, can end up swallowing the meia-água. Another solution is to build on top of the meia-água, swapping the roof for a laje: this substitution alone is enough for the meia-água to no longer be considered a meia-água but a house (Figure 9).

Figure 9 – An “upgraded” meia-água (2015): the owner swapped part of the original roof (on the right) for a laje and built a structure around it, then constructed a new casa on top

Figure 9 – An “upgraded” meia-água (2015): the owner swapped part of the original roof (on the right) for a laje and built a structure around it, then constructed a new casa on top

Source: Author.

22It is also possible to find a use for the meia-água. In some cases, it is turned into a workshop, a place where activities linked to work are carried out, such as sewing or equipment repairs. This, for instance, is César’s project with the meia-água at the rear. Another way to make use of the meia-água is to turn it into a bedsit, that is, put it up for lease. Although the residents of the housing development have an extremely negative view of rent, it is rare for none of them to formulate the project of a bedsit (quitinete) on the land plot. This operation poses a degree of danger, though: the risk of having strangers in your house, living with people who are neither part of the family, nor relatives. This risk demands manipulation of the symbolic and architectural boundaries of the house in order to prevent the stranger having to live with the family – from the native’s point of view, “mixing the families” (misturar as familias) would only result in more “annoyance” (aborrecimento) for them and should be avoided at any cost. The main solution is to create a “separate entrance” (entrada separada), which implies a change in the project of the house. “For us to rent,” Eurídice said, “we have to make another project, isolate the house [...]. Just now it’s the same entrance. But to rent a house, we have to do this in the future, we have to make an independent entrance [...]. And after we isolate the house so that it’s totally independent, maybe we...” In fact, transforming the meia-água into a quitinete, a casinha alugada (“little rented house”), has a both a financial cost, since construction work is needed to make an independent entrance, and a symbolic cost, since the bedsit requires a change in the project of the house.

23There is also the possibility of letting the meia-água out to a family member or a relative who is going through difficult times (passando sufoco). The case of Jair, Bernard’s brother-in-law, is one of the most interesting. When Jair, a native of the state of Espírito Santo, came to Rio de Janeiro in the early seventies, he went to live first in the same favela where his other brothers already had their home. He began dating Bernard’s sister, and after moving into a rented house in Jardim Maravilha, Bernard’s father called him to share the rent. Jair made plans to buy a plot of land and move in with Bernard’s sister, by now his wife. With the money he got from the company where he worked, Jair was able to buy a plot. He began to build a meia-água in the rear of the property with the help of his father-in-law, where he stayed with his family for some time. Then his mother arrived from Espírito Santo, wanting to live close to her children who were all now living in Rio de Janeiro. Living in Jair’s house was not a viable option, though: “But there was already, I mean, my family, right, you know, it was a pain having her live here with me, so... I called my brothers and we built three rooms for her here.” However, their mother did not stay very long in the meia-águazinha (little meia-água) built especially for her: she went back to the roça (“country”) and the meia-água remained shut for a while. Later Jair rented the dwelling to a couple, but they ended up in trouble with the police, leading him to close it again. “Then my brother-in-law [Bernard] needed it [...]. He married and [...] came to live here. So we expanded it a bit. We made a few rooms here. He has suddenly bought the land where he’s living [now], he was finding things difficult, his wife was pregnant, so he lived here for a time. Later he built his own house [...] He was still living down there, so I went there, I began to work on this house, right, laying a few bricks, little by little. I carried on building slowly until I eventually built this house here.” Today, then, Jair is building a second floor above the house where he lives, in what was his mother’s meia-água, with the idea of renting the lower floor and moving upstairs. Meanwhile the meia-água to the rear of the property remained closed until it became a storehouse for his son to keep his materials.

24At the same time that the meia-água forms part of the strategies designed to minimize building costs, keeping alive the project of building a house in accordance with the family’s needs, it may also serve to construct an arrangement of families within the same plot, without compromising their privacy. In other words, when people wish to connect nuclear families united by some tie of kinship, the meia-água, as a low-cost casinha (“little house”), comprises an adequate solution. Here we need to return to the discussion of the nuclear family: many social scientists have seen it as the product of a dissolution of ties with the extended kin group. Marxists (Engels 1884) and functionalists (Parsons and Bales 1956), for instance, linked the nuclear family to the genesis of industrial society. However, various studies of domestic groups in Europe not only questioned this narrative (Laslett 1972), they pointed to the role of the extended family in maintaining the nuclear family (Segalen 1984). Or, to use less structural-functionalist language, the construction of the nuclear family “continually forms part of processes that individuate – in this context, obtain and maintain a house – and processes that relate” (McCallum & Bustamante 2012).

25Following on from Marcelin’s pioneering work on black families in the Recôncavo region of Bahia (Marcelin 1999), recent studies have shown that this relationship ideally occurs between houses united by the same “ideology of the family and kinship,” a type of arrangement baptized a “configuration of houses.” The same phenomenon is reproduced in Jardim Maravilha. Various operations linked to the act of “caring” (cuidar) thus involve house configurations: caring for a pregnant daughter-in-law; caring for children, when the mother is working (maybe children are the people who most constantly move from one house to another, inside the same configuration); caring for a widowed mother. While these actions primarily involve women, men also perform an important role – for example, when there is some men’s work to do: changing a light fitting, mending a cracked pipe, reforming part of the house. Ideally the “family father” (pai de família) can do everything by himself, but a family father may be absent, or perhaps is too unwell to perform this work. In other cases, the family father lacks the technical knowhow required, or the task demands the collaboration of several men, hence the necessity to chamar colegas, call on one’s mates to help. There are also cases in which the father calls on his mates not because he needs their help, but to help them, knowing that they are looking for work or passando sufoco: that is, going through a difficult patch.

26In his work, Marcelin emphasizes that “the configuration of houses does not refer to an immediately localizable grouping,” perhaps to dissuade the reader from confusing the concept with the extended family (Marcelin 1999: 37). Indeed, spatial proximity does not serve to identify a configuration of houses, although in his empirical descriptions, the road served this function (1996: 356). While in the case of Jardim Maravilha the configurations are also non-localizable, the plot does have a centripetal effect on them. It is through the land plot, as Jair’s history demonstrates, that houses united by the same ideology of the family can be distributed in the same space without compromising the privacy of each. In other words, the space of the land plot enables a first actualization of the “tensions between hierarchy and autonomy, between collectivism and individualism,” so characteristic of configurations of houses. At the same time, the mere fact of living on the same plot creates connections between families. When a problem occurs with the collective facilities, this involves all the families. Inside the configuration of houses, there is usually a division of division of labor according to gender and technical skills: for instance, Irene’s son-in-law, who works as a plumber and lives upstairs with her daughter, will be assigned to mend any leaking water pipes; the grandparents who live downstairs will fetch their granddaughters and take care of them while the parents are working. The existence of shared areas, used for leisure and moving about, also stimulates these connections. Additionally, the internal space may be manipulated to ensure the privacy of each family: on Irene’s land plot, where each of the three sons has their own house, there is a stairway to the upper house, a stairway on the outside of the building, an internal door to the house of the son who lives in the fundos (the son even built a wall inside the plot to separate his area) and another stairway, also to the rear, leading to the house of the third son. Irene’s house can be accessed via the kitchen door, situated to the rear, or via the living room door, found at the front. Each house has a separate entrance, therefore, and none communicates directly with the other.

27The land plot also materializes the hierarchical order prevailing within the family. While each house belongs to a different family, the land belongs to a single person, the owner (male or female) of the house – in most cases the father or mother of the children who built their own houses inside the plot. As the first to build, the owner is also the one who lives in the front, while the oldest son traditionally lives on the floor above and the youngest to the rear. From this point of view, the meia-água functions as an index of the hierarchy operating in the configuration of houses. Bernard’s father, for example, built a meia-água at the back of the property when Bernard was constructing his house at the front. When the father died, the mother was left alone: Bernard’s youngest son, already married but renting a place to live, decided to live with his grandmother. Today, although the grandmother having since died, the house is still occupied by the youngest son. Here the meia-água materializes a non-egalitarian relationship: Bernard was the owner of the land, hence the person to make the house was Bernard, while the meia-água belonged to his father in the rear of the property; the youngest son had nowhere else to live on the land plot, since the oldest son had built his house on the floor above – the meia-água expresses and annuls a relation of dependency (Figure 10).

Figure 10 – A very typical configuration of houses in Jardim Maravilha: the meia-água at the rear of the plot, occupied by adult children, aging parents or tenants, and the casa at the front, where the owners and their younger children live

Figure 10 – A very typical configuration of houses in Jardim Maravilha: the meia-água at the rear of the plot, occupied by adult children, aging parents or tenants, and the casa at the front, where the owners and their younger children live

Source: Author.

Building the “deferred city”

28Far from being exclusively determined by financial limitations, the case of the meia-água draws attention to the different kinds of motivation acting upon self-construction: getting access to privacy and property, saving space and money for the planned house, configuring relations among kin groups. These motivations show “strategic practices aimed at facing the constraints defined by external determinants and at exploring the new field of the thinkable and the possible that these determinants constitute” (Le Bris et al. 1985: 28). On the other hand, we have seen that these “strategic practices” reproduce a hierarchy of residential forms whose roots plunge deeply into Brazilian history: the cômodo, the meia-água and the boa casa. Self-construction is never as free as it looks: the field of residential possibilities, which the lack of legal supervision and the use of self-construction seem to expand, is limited by the cultural hierarchies that constrain people’s “building imagination” (Cavalcanti 2007).

29The “configurations of houses” revealed by the meias-águas strongly resemble several cases, in Western Africa (Le Bris et al. 1985), Southern Europe (Pfirsch 2011a), Haiti (Dalmaso 2014) or Chile (Araos 2016). However, in the present, these configurations coexist with a very strong concern for privacy. So, the ethnographic analysis makes clear here that “configurations of houses” are not necessarily reinterpretations of a former extended family, as the African case might suggest (Le Bris et al. 1985). There is a very strong desire for autonomy as well. It is within this “structure of tensions” (Marcelin 1999) between autonomy and family collectivism that the meia-água makes sense.

30The meia-água expresses a way of occupying the space clearly derived from the urbanização diferida process. In the absence of legal inspection and urban infrastructure, the residents take advantage of the available space by building small houses, provisional bases (but you never know exactly how long the provisional will last...) for their domestic and family lives. Lot dimensions, now much higher than the minimums accepted by the current legislation (180 m² according to Federal Law 6.766/79), clearly facilitate the type of residential arrangements expressed in the construction of meia-água. The lack of infrastructure and the distance from the center ensure a lower demand for land, which means that people do not need to densify the plots. The urbanization policies adopted since the 1980s actually increased the demand for land, forcing residents to turn their meias-águas into homes, but this urbanization is still incomplete. The meia-água is still part of the urban landscape.

31Although the appropriation of land plots has been my focus here, the urbanização diferida process has some impact on the use of public space too: as soon as they begin to build their houses, the residents usually construct some equipment for collective use, buying water pipes, poles and power cables to ensure access to basic services. The house and the lot thus become the matrix of a whole complex architecture of infrastructures. Far from directly opposing the space of the house, the space of the street becomes an extension of it, demanding care and investment on the part of the residents. These are points that merit further investigation, and serve to show how, in the “delayed and diverging city” (cidade diferida), the territorialization of kinship relations and the production of urban space go hand-in-hand.

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List of illustrations

Title Figure 1 – Jardim Maravilha, a “peripheral housing subdivision” (2018)
Credits Sources: Environmental Systems Research Institute (ESRI), Instituto Pereira Passos (IPP).
File image/png, 2.2M
Title Table 1 – Urban and sociological profile of Jardim Maravilha (2010)
Credits Source: Instituto Brasileiro de Geografia e Estatística (IBGE), Census 2000 and 2010
File image/png, 51k
Title Figure 2 – Sample of “proletarian houses” in Rio de Janeiro (1941)
Credits Source: A Manhã.
File image/jpeg, 1.9M
Title Figure 3 – Walling off a door, opening a new gate: the “building imagination” of Jardim Maravilha inhabitants
Credits Source: Author.
File image/jpeg, 256k
Title Figure 4 – A good house in Jardim Maravilha (2014)
Credits Source: Author.
File image/jpeg, 716k
Title Figure 5 – A cômodo (left) and a casa (right) in Jardim Maravilha (2016)
Credits Source: Author.
File image/jpeg, 668k
Title Figure 6 – The front of an isolated meia-água (2015)
Credits Source: Author
File image/jpeg, 568k
Title Figure 7 – Three typical meia-águas occupying the same plot (2015)
Credits Source: Author.
File image/jpeg, 672k
Title Figure 8 – Roof types and social hierarchy during the colonial era
Credits Source: Author.
File image/png, 59k
Title Figure 9 – An “upgraded” meia-água (2015): the owner swapped part of the original roof (on the right) for a laje and built a structure around it, then constructed a new casa on top
Credits Source: Author.
File image/jpeg, 392k
Title Figure 10 – A very typical configuration of houses in Jardim Maravilha: the meia-água at the rear of the plot, occupied by adult children, aging parents or tenants, and the casa at the front, where the owners and their younger children live
Credits Source: Author.
File image/jpeg, 33k
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Electronic reference

Thomas Cortado, Meia-água: producing space and kinship in an irregular housing subdivision in Rio de JaneiroArticulo - Journal of Urban Research [Online], 20 | 2019, Online since 30 December 2019, connection on 05 December 2022. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Thomas Cortado

State University of Campinas (Unicamp), Brazil. Contact:

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