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A stitch in time: the legacy of colonialism in the Americas

Jorge mario jáuregui architects rio das pedras architectural review

Brazil’s colonial past cleaved urban society yet nurtured a thriving Modernism

At the Gwangju 2018 Biennale, Brazilian artist Lais Myrrha built a piece called Case Study in which a full-size column of the Alvorada Palace (Oscar Niemeyer, 1957-58) is supported by a full-size column of the Colubandê plantation (Rio de Janeiro, 17th century). Such is the conundrum of Brazilian architecture: a very successful Modernism deeply rooted in coloniality. 

The architecture of Brazil is more than simply an application of Corbusian principles for a warmer climate. In this narrow and Eurocentric definition of Brazilian 20th-century architecture, existing scholarship celebrates Brazil’s achievements when it coincides with and reinforces northern expectations, diminishing them every time they diverge. Many contemporary authors have explored the pervasive nature of such ethnocentrism in architectural criticism and the ways in which the discourse is always dictated by northern terms, denying agency and initiative to anyone outside its intellectual borders. It is time to decolonise the analysis and the narrative of Brazilian architecture.

Kama sutra case study lais myrrha architectural review

Kama sutra case study lais myrrha architectural review

Kama Sutra, Case Study #3, 2018, by Lais Myrrha juxtaposes a column from Brazil’s colonial past (Colubandê plantation) with a Modernist column at the Alvorada Palace by Oscar Niemeyer

Lúcio Costa is central to any conversation about Brazilian architecture and deserves the credit for intellectually articulating his country’s Modernism with its Baroque past. In what became widely known as ‘modern/colonial stitching’, Costa anchored the architecture of his Carioca group in Brazil’s colonial past to deflect the criticism that Modernism was foreign. Modern/colonial stitching goes much further, and uglier, than that. The project of modernity was rooted in coloniality: deforestation, black and mulatto low-cost labour, plantation-style agriculture, informal settlements, and police repression. The first European economic activity in the country was to convince the indigenous population to fell a redwood tree – brazilwood – and ship it across the ocean. So Brazil was named after the process of deforestation, with cheap labour to export cash crops. 

Decolonial lenses should allow us to discuss urgent issues in any contemporary analysis of architecture: capitalism, race, gender and architecture as both a result and an instrument of colonialist spatiality. I am amazed by how often people refer to my native country as non-West. Many of my colleagues, following the general public discourse, have become accustomed to conflating Western civilisation with NATO – the military alliance that has dominated the planet for 70 years. People are surprised when asked what the main difference is between the histories of Brazil and the US that allow them to think of one as part of the West and the other not. Both were populated by Amerindians before being invaded and colonised by Europeans who in the process of grabbing their land, imposed their religion and their language, slaughtered the natives and enslaved millions of Africans to sustain their enterprises. The role of Western civilisation in this endeavour is exactly the same, and the results are more similar than we like to admit.

To properly address the dark side of this long process of modernisation it is necessary to engage a critique of modernity, not only following Jürgen Habermas, Andreas Huyssen and Michel Foucault (among many others), but in particular Arturo Escobar, Walter Mignolo and Aníbal Quijano. What this group of South Americans has done is a complete deconstruction of the noble ideas of modernisation – held by most architects today – to demonstrate that there is no modernisation without colonialisation. The transformations that we call modernity are imbued with much inequality that invariably benefits the same white-male agent, to the detriment of everyone that is non-white and non-male. The history of architecture as we know it is the history of white male designers, written by white male scholars.

Avenida central map architectural review decolonialising

Avenida central map architectural review decolonialising

Source: MHCRJ

In 1903-06, mayor Pereira Passos expelled poor inhabitants from downtown Rio to make way for new development including the Avenida Central (also below). The drawings imposed a new order on the working-class spaces

Avenida central architectural review

Avenida central architectural review

Source: Marc Ferrez 

To challenge that, we need to ask ourselves: what has been the role of architecture and planning in this modern/colonial project? Interestingly enough, only two decades separate the publication of Alberti’s De Re Aedificatoria (1471) and the arrival of Europeans on the American continent (1492). Architecture as a projection of a modern future, separated from construction and harnessed to conquer the entire planet, is both the ultimate tool and result of those two major events. 

Back in 1572, Philip II of Spain decreed the Laws of the Indies specifying that cities were for Spanish descendants only, and that Indians should live in their own pueblos in the countryside. Such was the beginning of modern architecture in the Americas. A city to exclude and to induce respect by fear is very different from a city to make people free. Since the early 16th century this was the rule: a city as a machine to exclude. Portuguese settlers adopted more informal relations to differentiate themselves from Spanish strict exclusion, but the result is not that different. The colonial project was one of controlling space by imposing abstract lines on the territory. Roberto Fernández explains in El Laboratorio Americano that the Americas have always been this spatial laboratory where theories and ideas were tested first, to be later accepted back in Europe. The move from colonial rule to independence did little to change that in the 19th century, the large metropolitan areas exploding with urban growth – an urbanisation of exclusion that concentrated wealth and power in the hands of a few, from New York to Buenos Aires, from San Francisco to Lima. 

‘The project of modernity was rooted in coloniality’

In all these instances, we see the power of architecture to impose an exclusionary society. In the words of Mexican scholar Diana Maldonado, there was always planning and off-planning. Inside the drawn city were the elites and a small middle class, which had to wait for the 20th century to grow in size and importance. Outside the drawing,  in the off-planning, were the majority of the population. Such stratified order never bothered to understand the fact that everybody builds. A few build using drawings, the majority build with no drawings. The division of architecture from construction, proposed by Alberti, was manifest in the exclusionary American city. The drawn and the undrawn explains American urban spaces as well or better than any other dichotomy.

The dawn of the 20th century witnessed a renewed interest in urban improvements, but they were also mostly confined to slum removal and the opening of transport arteries, the American cities following Haussmann’s compass. New York’s Slum Clearance Committee in the ’30s and the Detroit Black Bottom demolition  in the mid-century are famous cases, but the infamous precursor was Rio de Janeiro with the reforms of mayor Pereira Passos in 1906, expelling thousands of poor families from crowded downtown to make room for boulevards and development. The drawings here were used to impose new order on the spaces occupied by the working classes, reinforcing the old rule. To live on the asphalt or in the hills (no asfalto ou no morro) could be translated as: do you live in the drawing or outside the drawing? No wonder architects missed the widespread phenomenon of Popular Modernism in the 1940s and ’50s, in which the middle class copied elements of modern architecture and applied them to their facades. It was not drawn by architects therefore not worthy of their attention.

Rio das pedras map jorge mario jauregui architectural review

Rio das pedras map jorge mario jauregui architectural review

(With lead image) Jorge Mario Jáuregui Architects strive to stitch together the area of the Favela-Bairro Rio das Pedras to mitigate the legacy of segregation from Rio’s colonial past. They have integrated new streets, walkways and communal facilities – recreational areas, daycare and kitchens – in a concerted effort to address health and environmental concerns

Favelas had to wait for an architect to become a politician to be worthy of attention and improvement. Luiz Paulo Conde was Rio’s secretary of urbanism 1993-97 and in that capacity created the Favela-Bairro programme. For the first time, the favelas were ‘drawn’. The idea was to improve them by building infrastructure with minimal demolition. Favela-Bairro became the reference for similar interventions all over the country and Conde was elected mayor in 1997. The 1990s also saw the rise of participatory budget initiatives that brought architects’ attention to peripheries and informal communities. A decade later, huge federal investments in housing and infrastructure were launched by the Lula/Dilma governments and a new sensibility was developed. Billions of dollars were invested in the favelas and the architects followed. In 2007-09, Carlos Teixeira and Fernando Maculan built exquisite structures at Aglomerado da Serra in Belo Horizonte. 

Some projects were more sensitive to context than others. In Várzea Paulista, near São Paulo, FGMF architects designed a school for FDE, the state education foundation, in 2008. A large volume of prefabricated concrete structure stands in contrast to the humble self-built neighbourhood. Here we have all the signs of coloniality: large orthogonal volumes of orthodox Modernist vocabulary amid an informal neighbourhood. The contrast between drawn and the non-drawn could not be more distinct.

Cantinho do céu boldarini arquitetura architectural review

Cantinho do céu boldarini arquitetura architectural review

Source: DANIEL DUCCI

(Also below) the park Cantinho do Céu by Boldarini Arquitetura & Urbanismo on the outskirts of São Paulo has benefited from urban intervention sympathetic to lower-income inhabitants. Historically, those more in need were consigned to lower land bordering stagnant water, but the linear park has afforded small neighbourhood spaces fit for all

Cantinho do céu boldarini arquitetura architectural review map

Cantinho do céu boldarini arquitetura architectural review map

In contrast to this colonial/modern strategy of state presence and control is the work of Marcos Boldarini at Cantinho do Céu. This informal community sits on a lake peninsula on the southern outskirts of São Paulo. Decades ago the first occupants built on the highest land. The newcomers had to build closer to the margins where rubbish and construction debris accumulated on stagnant water. In 2008, Boldarini designed a linear park around the peninsula, turning the most degraded area into an amenity for the low-income inhabitants. His strategy was to create small spaces that accommodated the terrain and respected the neighbourhood scale. 

At the other end of the spectrum are the questionable works built for the FIFA World Cup of 2014 and Rio’s 2016 Summer Olympics, hovering as a heavy cloud still darkening the mood of Brazilian architects. The disjointed Museu do Amanhã by Santiago Calatrava, completed in 2015, is ageing fast in downtown Rio. At the famous Copacabana Beach, a more elegant museum designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro stands unfinished, a construction site started in 2015 but already in ruins. These buildings were extensively drawn somewhere in the North Atlantic but their drawings have no context. Calatrava’s museum sits in a hard-surface plaza overheated by Rio’s searing sun. It is easy to imagine it anywhere else on the planet, a symbol of wealth and power absolutely disconnected from what people need, a resurrection of coloniality. But the undrawn is resilient: look closely and the four-year-old building is mottled with rusty stains not to be found in the drawings. 

Lead image: Jorge Mario Jáuregui Architects strive to stitch together the area of the Favela-Bairro Rio das Pedras to mitigate the legacy of segregation from Rio’s colonial past. They have integrated new streets, walkways and communal facilities – recreational areas, daycare and kitchens – in a concerted effort to address health and environmental concerns. Image courtesy of Gabriel Jáuregui

This piece is featured in the AR October issue on Brazil – click here to purchase your copy today