In 1941, Austrian expatriate Stefan Zweig described Brazil as a nation that might teach the warring planet how humans could “live peacefully together, despite all the differences of race, class, color, religion and creed.” Discerning in South America’s largest, most diverse country a peaceful and humane society that was building distinctively modern cities in harmony with nature, Zweig concluded that he had “looked into the future of our world.”
That prophecy later became the subject of a joke: Brazil is the country of the future — and it always will be. Brasília, the new capital inaugurated in 1960, exemplified the “orderly, clean-lined architecture and city planning” Zweig had praised, but it also — like most of the nation’s cities — spawned favelas and unplanned communities lacking basic infrastructure and civil services.
Now a decade of strong economic growth has changed the story. Led by the expansion of mining, agribusiness and urban development, Brazil’s economy surged through the late 2000s, even while the Great Recession sapped economies around the world. As Brazil prepares to host the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympic Games in rapid succession, observers are suggesting that Brazil’s moment has at last arrived.
Under the banner “City: Ways of Making, Ways of Using,” the 10th São Paulo Architecture Biennial examined the wave of development and construction reshaping the country. In the projects shown here, architects and artists reflect on the problems and possibilities of economic and urban growth. How is rapid urbanization happening? Who is benefiting, and who is being displaced or excluded? What can architects and citizens do to exert leverage on processes at once local and global?
Sponsored by the Instituto de Arquitetos do Brasil, the exhibition was curated by a team led by architect and historian Guilherme Wisnik with architects Ana Luiza Nobre and Ligia Nobre, and produced by Ana Helena Curti. They organized hundreds of works under eight thematic chapters: on ways of acting, inhabiting, flowing, encountering, crossing, negotiating, being modern, and collaborating. They installed each chapter in a different museum, cultural center, metro station or plaza, dispersing the exhibition across a large part of the metropolis, over seven weeks last fall.
A key focus of the exhibition was the “spectacle of growth” promised by former President Lula da Silva in his 2002 campaign. Several projects addressed the development of Pernambuco, Pará, and other northern states where mining, agribusiness, manufacturing and oil refining are stimulating new infrastructure and housing. Studies of São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro scrutinized the transformations under way as these southern cities address infrastructure needs, formalize informal communities, and build new facilities for the upcoming global games. Models, maps and photographs explored large state-sponsored housing initiatives as well as a small selection of distinctive single-family houses.
The curators put Brazilian developments into dialogue with reports from megalopolitan areas in South and North America, Europe, Africa and Asia — especially China, the “concrete dragon” that epitomizes intensive economic and urban growth. The show included material from Hong Kong, Shenzhen, Beijing and Ordos, inviting audiences to contemplate the rise of the BRIC countries and their dense instant cities. Several sections foregrounded the ways that everyday urban residents claim agency and a Lefebvrian right to the city, whether through activism or tactics of daily life. A restaging of the Canadian Centre for Architecture show “Actions: What You Can Do With the City” offered an alternative model to the large-scale urbanization foregrounded in other galleries.
The Biennial also looked back to mid-20th-century legacies at home and abroad, including modernist urban visions by Sérgio Bernardes for Rio de Janeiro and the grands ensembles of postwar France, as well as a show of art and architecture by Paulo Mendes da Rocha, Cildo Meireles, Hélio Oiticica and Lina Bo Bardi.
The venues included some of São Paulo’s greatest buildings, among them Bo Bardi’s Museu de Arte on Avenida Paulista and her SESC Pompeia across town, as well as the extraordinary Centro Cultural de São Paulo, a groundscraper designed in the 1970s by Eurico Prado Lopes and Luiz Telles. Talks and performances, programs and actions augmented the exhibits, as did a series of short essays in a special Biennial edition of the architecture journal Monolito. The result was a rich, varied, sometimes scattershot but always interesting exploration of how architects and users can intervene in big modernization processes through analysis, building design and small interventions.