We are in São Paulo, a metropolitan area inhabited by almost twenty million people that has evolved according to rigid urban and infrastructural models, which are scarcely open to the more fertile dynamics of human and social interrelation. The Urban-Think Tank team of architects and town planners is striving to develop flexible models for intervention in the Brazilian metropolis that can weave together vehicular, economic and social mobility.
Anti-works and anti-city
A ação é a pura manifestação expressiva da obra—action is a pure expressive manifestation of the work. This is how the Brazilian artist Hélio Oiticica described his artistic vision and the essence of his famous Parangolés, garment sculptures that interact with the movements of the human body, assuming not only a form but also a “soul.” Each Parangolé combines the myth of the dancing Maenads with the dazzling and lively spirit of the streets of Rio de Janeiro—an unpredictable magic that is both individual and collective. At the opposite (and rather more universal) end of a theoretical street classification in Brazilian salsa are the streets of São Paulo, a city that in a metaphorical image of the circus is the “whiteface” clown at least as much as Rio is the “auguste.” These streets are the evidence of a rigid city vision: “works” in which action is in no way contemplated as an expressive manifestation, let alone as a social and environmental one.
São Paulo from above
Viewed from above, São Paulo seems to go on forever. With nearly twenty million inhabitants, this metropolitan area is one of the most highly populated in South America, as well as one of the most complex and problematic. Since the 1930s, the city’s growth has been shaped by massive public investment, particularly in the road network. In this still ongoing process, the role of strategic priority reserved for private means of transport has been detrimental to alternative systems of public transport. This has not only resulted in the formation of a highly inflexible and largely congested infrastructural grid, but also, in broader and more problematic terms, in a process of unbalanced urbanization that has led to a drastic reduction of population density in central areas and an increased density in peripheral and border districts. As a consequence of these town planning policies, rained from on high onto the land below, São Paulo’s growth has generated adverse effects of regression for territorial and social mobility.
In many cases, São Paulo’s process of formation has been based on drastic population resettlement operations in the area and a radical rewriting of local society. A case in point is the area lying between Berrini Avenue and Pinheiros Marginal, in the southern part of the city. Since the 1990s, a shopping area, hotels and luxury houses have been built here, also financed by state capital. The over 50,000 inhabitants of the Água Espraiada favela, demolished to make space for the new and exclusive “global enclave,” therefore instigated a series of illegal occupations, with the effect being random blotches of social unease. In other cases, similar processes have generated very different results. One of these is Cidade Nova Heliopólis, which was established in 1970 to rehouse seventy families from the district of Vila Prudente and grew to become Brazil’s biggest favela with a population of over 100,000. However, this growth was accompanied by the development of a spontaneous and informal economic system and an efficient network of streets and services for communal use. Today Heliopólis is no longer a favela but a bairro—a district—that can offer services to the whole metropolis.
Urban-Think Tank at São Paulo
One of the most evident and dramatic consequences of São Paulo’s urban growth is the rapid loss of efficiency in the consolidated and “rigid” infrastructural systems. In response to this situation, new methods and modes of intervention have been developed by Urban-Think Tank—a group of architects founded in Caracas by Alfredo Brillembourg and Hubert Klumpner, with an office in São Paulo as well as in Zurich (their head office), Caracas and New York. Having become more than a purely physical phenomenon (carrier “X” has to move from “A” to “B”), vehicular mobility is addressed by the group as part of a vast and interrelated urban dynamic that sees the interaction of different kinds of mobility: from economic to social. No longer a separate issue, transport becomes an open and flexible device, interconnecting with various aspects of everyday life, the search for means of subsidence, the environment, and individual and collective wellbeing. New systems of mobility arise to enable and inspire productive activity and informal social relationships: able to “bring alive” the street, and with it the city.
In Urban-Think Tank’s concrete utopia, mobility is transformed into a device for interrelation between individuals. As U-TT claims, even devices initially conceived as static can be reprogrammed—permanently or temporarily—and made to open up to flexible and diversified activity. Is this a new kind of informal town planning, a “Parangolé town planning” open to human spontaneity and expression? Is it possible to plan (but perhaps even this term is no longer adequate) infrastructural and architectural works without inhibiting the eclectic vitality of individual actions, pure (and impure) expressive manifestations of the “city”? We don’t have a sure answer, but it’s a good thing that someone is trying to do it.
This text is based on conversations between Guido Musante and Urban-Think Tank.
This article was first published in DOMUS, issue 961.