By SEBASTIAN ROTELLA
Los Angeles Times Service
RIO DE JANEIRO -- The escape route from the city center leads past the
beachfront glories of Copacabana and Ipanema, past the Rocinha slum, to a coastal
landscape shaped by Brazil's architecture of fear.
Rio's outlying Barra da Tijuca neighborhood is a thickening forest of condominium
towers with names like New Ipanema, complete with self-enclosed shopping and
recreation areas, even their own schools. The condominiums are fortresses: high
walls, sentry boxes, internal checkpoints, computerized camera and alarm systems,
private security forces with guns, dogs and motorcycles.
Residents of Barra da Tijuca venture warily into an outside world that
they see as
hostile. An Israeli-trained bodyguard escorts a billionaire's young son to the movies;
an executive carries an Uzi submachine gun in his car.
Crime in Brazilian cities has forced the well-to-do into a hyperinsulated
that sometimes resembles urban science fiction. Amid economic recession, a $2
billion-a-year security industry thrives in Brazil. More than 100,000 private security
guards work in Rio alone, half of them in semi-clandestine firms that fill the city with
motley armies-for-hire. Anti-crime defenses account for an estimated 20 percent of
the monthly fees paid at condominium complexes and walled communities.
And instead of striving for an open and inviting style accentuating the
beauty, architects are influenced by the same forces as those permeating daily life:
violence and fear.
Security top priority
``It is all bars, walls with broken glass on top; if there are flowers,
they have thorns
for a defensive effect,'' said Roberto Gianotti, an architect who has survived a home
invasion and the kidnapping of his daughter. ``An isolated house is poison on the
market. Security is the top priority, the great challenge, of every project. You can't
work freely; security defines everything.''
Brazil has one of the worst murder rates in the hemisphere. In 1996, the
city of Rio
recorded 53.3 murders per 100,000 inhabitants, compared with about 20 per 100,000
in Los Angeles.
Rio has been shaken by periodic warfare between gangsters who rule hilltop
and police who are often overwhelmed, brutal and corrupt.
Common thugs choose victims at random for ``lightning abductions'' that
last a few
hours, and professional gangs finance drug trafficking with large ransom payments.
There has been a resulting boom in self-defense classes and gun sales,
and bulletproof vehicles -- the number of such cars in Rio and Sao Paulo tripled last
year, according to the newspaper O Estado de Sao Paulo. More and more Brazilians
avoid public spaces and conventional homes in favor of closed streets and controlled
environments such as Ocean Front, a complex in Barra da Tijuca with a surveillance
system designed by IBM Brazil, and in the similarly futuristic Alphaville, a
development in suburban Sao Paulo.
None other than President Fernando Henrique Cardoso, a sociologist and
enthusiast, lamented this exodus from urban centers in a book of interviews
published last year.
``It is a penitentiary existence,'' said Cardoso. ``The rich in Brazil
are prisoners of
themselves. . . . I hope that, in the future, the `Alphavilleans' will realize it is better
not to live in such an isolated manner.''
In contrast to societies whose rage and violence are almost palpable, the
beauty and easy charm of Rio and its people create a deceptively benign impression.
Even as he recounts firsthand brushes with terror, architect Gianotti retains
cheeriness of the Carioca, as a native of Rio is known. He has lived in Barra da
Tijuca for 32 years.
`Incompetence of state'
Gianotti's three-story apartment house, with its large and easily scaled
designed in a more innocent era. Four years ago, Gianotti awoke to see a masked
intruder holding a gun to his wife's mouth.
``I made a gentleman's agreement with the robbers,'' he recalled. ``I told
would help them get anything they wanted out of the apartment as fast as possible
as long as they did not hurt my wife and daughter.''
Two years later, Gianotti's daughter was kidnapped along with her boyfriend.
a nightmarish 12 days of negotiation and a $700,000 ransom payment, the two were
Gianotti blames Brazil's woes on the ``incompetence of the state,'' which
organized crime to establish ``parallel states'' in desperate slums.
``Violence is the fruit of hunger,'' he said.
Like President Cardoso, Gianotti worries about the retreat of the middle
classes to artificial outposts of privilege. The lawns and athletic fields of Barra da
Tijuca provide a healthy, seemingly idyllic existence for children, he said, but the
place also cuts them off from reality.
``They grow up thinking life is beaches, shopping malls, beautiful girls,''
Copyright © 1999 The Miami Herald