One piece of trivia I learnt while hunting for a flat in Rio is that even small ones (our budget limited us to about 70 m2) have
slave servantÂ´s quarters. HereÂ´s the original floor plan of a typical 2-bedroomed flat, built in the 1950s; but the pattern held at least till the mid-1970s.
The modest space is divided as rigidly as an Edwardian mansion into the masterÂ´s and mistressÂ´ area and the servantÂ´s. The maid has her own tiny bedroom (ca. 4m2 ), toilet/shower, washing area, and kitchen – with its own door on to the landing.
None of the many flats we looked at actually had a live-in maid. Unemployment is still high and wages low, so a cultural shift has probably been happening. Telenovelas about haut-bourgeois Brazilian clans, living in houses or flats at least four times the size of ours, still feature the servant as a stock rÃ´le. ItÂ´s a good one for character actors, with plenty of comic potential. The considerable dramatic advantages of servants for writers of soaps (confidences, misunderstandings, class conflict, repartee, farce) may mean that they are surviving in art longer than in real life.
The separate bedroom is functional, given the existence of the maid. But the completely useless separate entrance, 2 feet from the main front door, is a tribute to the costs people will pay to maintain social distinctions. In a post-Renaissance manor house, a separate rear entrance for the many servants and tradesmen in muddy boots made functional sense. Here it has shrunk to a pointless social marker. In this particular flat – the one we are buying – it has been bricked up, releasing valuable wall space in the kitchen; but most still keep it.
Oddly enough security isnÂ´t a big consideration: Rio has plenty of street crime, but not burglary, as blocks of flats all have doormen and few criminals have cars. Contrast the Paris flat of a professor friend, with armoured door and high-security multipoint lock: the concierge has gone, replaced only by a coded keypad. I assume the burglars are much more skilled, as a result of a solid French technical education.
In terms of the costs paid to maintain a status marker, the servantsÂ´ entrances in Rio pale in comparison to the front room of the respectable British working class in the century ca. 1870-1970. HereÂ´s a typical two-up, two-down terrace house in an East London suburb.
Almost a quarter of the scarce living space was sacrificed to a front parlour only used for weddings, funerals and occasional visits by the vicar. Over the last 40 years or so, most of the dividing walls have been knocked down to make one bigger living room. Every Brit knows the term for the essential piece of kit for this common project: an RSJ, rolled steel joist.