Herzog & de Meuron

Mãe Luiza was established on a dune at a point where the arid inland areas reach the ocean. This unique coastal landscape still forms the strongest asset for the whole of Natal. It was the unique natural setting, which defined the city’s foundation, forms its present urban character and continues to sustain the region’s economy.

The privileged location of Mãe Luiza was an important factor in its urban history. Starting as an illegal occupation, the favela quickly spread over the soft dunes around the Farol – a monumental lighthouse in close proximity to the historic city centre, with commanding views across the ocean. The strong community that has developed within this inspirational site has followed a very different path from a typical slum. The Centro Sócio Pastoral Nossa Senhora da Conceição, the people of Mãe Luiza in conjunction with the University, authorities of Natal and international partnerships have, together, created a large network of solidarity and through these combined efforts, the favela has urbanised and gradually evolved into the neighbourhood full of potential we see today.

However, it is contradictions and apparent conflicts, which characterise a visitor’s first impressions of Mãe Luiza. The area has escaped misery but remains a very poor neighbourhood with dilapidated infrastructure. There is a strong community but everyday life is still heavily affected by crime. The beautiful location continues to be a target for commercial appetites, which endanger the specific character of the site and the local community. The neighbourhood is surrounded by beautiful dunes and ocean but has become fenced off and turned its back to its impressive natural setting. On the one hand, the protected natural zones create a comfortable nest for the quarter, but at the same time restrict its potential growth. Suffocatingly dense housing plots exist alongside vast open spaces scarcely used at all by the community. Two main streets absorb all public activity while rows of short, separated side streets remain separated and cut off from public life. These perceived dualities, often caused by opposing dynamics, continue to impede the development of the neighbourhood and suggest contradictory scenarios. In this moment of tensions and potential, of neglected assets and exhausted resources, we were asked to imagine a vision for Mãe Luiza.

Our observation of the site suggested the main areas available for growth and development: the main street João XXIII running through the entire length of the neighbourhood; the large fenced open areas around the Farol, the stadium and the school courtyard; and finally, fifty meters down the dune – the ocean coast. A close analysis of

the activities in Mãe Luiza, on the other hand, demonstrates the absence of basic elements of the urban structure- places of culture, leisure and sport for the entire community, as well as a lack of new workplaces. The present concept identifies spaces for the missing activities and distributes these within areas potentially available for development. This approach allows the evolution of Mãe Luiza to stem from the particular needs of its community and the specific potential of the area.

The first intent is to outline, strengthen and diversify the already existing structure. The main street is further enhanced as the backbone of the neighbourhood. Its specific bifurcation is used to strongly define the character of the two parallel streets. The western part will be a quieter precinct dedicated to pedestrians, a market and slow traffic, and defined by new areas of street green, meanwhile the eastern route will be the single main traffic artery of the neighbourhood, concentrating commerce and public transport and linking Mãe Luiza to down-town Natal.

The quality of the ocean and the beach will improve with the completion of a new sewage system currently underway. Access will be enhanced by a proposed new promenade along the entire coast making the shoreline more integrated and attractive. It will connect the disperse structures along the coast and create a new public destination along Mãe Luiza for residents and for people from whole Natal.

Perpendicular to the main street and the beach promenade will run a passarela, a new public axis connecting the main open spaces within the neighbourhood – starting at the open space around the Farol, through the school yard and its sport ground, by the sports field and the neighbouring houses and ending in the dunes. The passarela is a new type of public space in Mãe Luiza. Like a long covered public plaza, it cuts through the dense urban tissue and draws together the diverse spaces that currently lie between the ocean and the dunes.

Along with these large linear elements working on the scale of the entire neighbourhood, the concept envisions a series of punctual interventions: smaller scale buildings, which introduce new programs or enhance existing amenities, all ready to be launched immediately. These new structures will be located along the length of the passarela and activate it with diverse public uses: a viewing platform to the protected dunes, new areas for professional activities and workshops, a sports field with the relevant facilities, new shops, a gymnasium,

and finally, an open-air amphitheatre and cinema overlooking the ocean. This sequence of new buildings continues the process of punctual interventions initiated by the Centro Sócio. However, in this case, new facilities are more concentrated, placed next to each other, so they can work together forming a new community centre and catalyzing new public activities in order to focus the development of the area, create a new perception of the neighbourhood, and open up Mãe Luiza to its residents and the natural beauty, which surrounds it.

Herzog & de Meuron, 2009



Project Team


Ameropa Foundation
Architect Planning: Herzog & de Meuron Basel Ltd., Basel, Switzerland
Architect Consulting: Assessoria Técnica da Universidade Federal do Rio Grande do Norte