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Rebels with a cause: insurgent practices in São Paulo’s abandoned spaces

São paulo housing movements mauá brazil architectural review 1465 danilo ramos flickr

In their fight against the displacement of local communities, activists are appropriating central São Paulo’s abandoned spaces

Abandoned and obsolete structures have become the newest field of exercise for architectural imagination around the world, converted into bright, mirrorsurfaced corporate towers, world-class hotels, shopping malls, museums or convention centres – real-estate products identified and priced in the global financial market. Without flag or face, global finance is the new colonial empire seizing cities. Deterritorialised and abstract, fictitious and speculative by nature, it occupies cities and materialises into landscapes for rent. Thanks to innovative financial instruments and the digital revolution, architecture – the most tectonic of all the arts – is dematerialised and made to circulate, through technologies and information flows, as pure value — or rather, as the future expectation of value, enabling rapid capital inflows and outflows, without heavy or complex transaction costs. Yet these same spaces are contested by those who are struggling to survive while also aspiring to prosperity. When neglected by urban planning and architectural imaginaries, abandoned sites are appropriated by those with limited resources, generating landscapes for life.

‘The hegemonic paradigm of individual property has been one of the most powerful motivations and justifications for denying other forms of territorial ties the right to exist’

Central São Paulo witnesses these disputes on a daily basis. The creation and consolidation of new urban and real-estate expansion fronts since the late 1960s, as well as widespread use of the car as the preferred means of transport for the middle and upper classes, has encouraged residential areas, services, commerce and cultural facilities to migrate to the south-western region of the city. This resulted in an exodus of the upper and middle classes out of the city centre, and the consequent abandonment of a considerable stock of both commercial and residential buildings. On the other hand, there have been social movements fighting for housing rights ever since the 1970s; although largely based in self-built settlements in the peripheries and favelas, they have also included dwellers of buildings converted into tenements, who partly laid claim to the stock of vacant buildings in the centre for social housing. This combination of factors, coupled with the decades-long insufficiency and inefficiency of housing policies in tackling the huge demand for, and precarity of, social housing in the city, produced the perfect urban and policy environment for the emergence of occupations in empty properties. These squats, usually led by organised housing and homeless movements that had been forming in the city centre for some time, came into being from the second half of the 1990s onwards.

São paulo 9 de julho housing movement brazil architectural review 1465 copyright jeroen stevens

São paulo 9 de julho housing movement brazil architectural review 1465 copyright jeroen stevens

Source: Jeroen Stevens

Members of 9 de Julho, one of São Paulo’s housing movements, gather in a 14-storey Art Deco building that was abandoned in the 1970s

The permanence of an occupation in space and time opens the possibility for the creation and construction of broader dynamics, such as alliances and networks with other movements, collectives, and social and political actors, that seek to claim public resources and focus on public-housing policies, creating other ways of building the city. That is how some of these occupations were able to gather enough public funding for their buildings to be renovated. Formerly a hotel, then a squat, São Paulo’s Hotel Cambridge building now comprises 121 residential units created by the Companhia Municipal de Habitação de São Paulo (COHAB) and the Peabiru Technical Advisory who were hired by the squatters. Even when they don’t reach that stage, the existence of these occupations, focused on fighting for space in the city, transforms how space is created and appropriated. This manifestation of the relationship between a social movement, professionals and activists is one of the ongoing insurgent, counter-hegemonic movements in central São Paulo, a hotly disputed territory.

São paulo sarau da cooperifa na ocupação maua 092 brazil architectural review 1465 viviane de paula

São paulo sarau da cooperifa na ocupação maua 092 brazil architectural review 1465 viviane de paula

Source: Viviane de Paula

The inner courtyard of a former hotel, now home to Mauá, serves as a playground for local children and a meeting area for the local community

The occupation of the former Hotel Santos Dumont, named Mauá, is the oldest of its kind in central São Paulo. The hotel, opened in 1953, is located near the city’s old and busy bus station, and in front of Luz train station — an imposing structure built with iron imported from the UK, one of the many manifestations of the coffee economy boom of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The station’s closure during the 1980s contributed to the hotel’s deterioration and decay and, during the 1990s, it was completely abandoned. Regardless, the neighbourhood – with its old, low buildings occupied by cafeterias, bars, small shops, cheap hotels and one of the city’s oldest red-light districts – remains one of the cornerstones of the city’s mass transit system.

In 2007, the building was occupied by three housing movements, its six floors divided among them, with one co-ordinator per floor and a general co-ordination group for the occupation as a whole. The large ground-floor hall provides kitchen facilities for renowned restaurants and chefs during parties, and hosts campaigner and resident assemblies, as well as meetings with collectives and other organisations, film screenings, classes for children and adults and, on occasion, evangelical worship. The inner courtyard – overlooked by apartment windows, with clothes lines floating above and leakages in rainwater pipes creating puddles on the floor – is also an important communal space. It is where children like to have fun and play ball after school, where parties and concerts, poetry slams, film and video recordings take place. These busy common spaces bring together the day-to-day existence of the occupation, its residents and the rest of the city.

Nova luz sp flickr são paulo housing movement brazil architectural review 1465

Nova luz sp flickr são paulo housing movement brazil architectural review 1465

Source: Nova luz sp / flickr

This part of central São Paulo was declared ‘dead’ by the government’s Nova Luz project, in the hope that its buildings would be demolished and replaced with shiny commercial towers

When the urban ‘revitalisation’ project Nova Luz was announced by the municipal and state governments in 2005, local business owners, residents and activists organised meetings at Mauá. Declaring the place ‘dead’, the project hoped to hand it to a public–private partnership with the power to expropriate entire neighbourhoods and replace them with new architectural objects such as commercial and residential towers. Mauá’s base was one of those set to be demolished and, although many buildings were torn down or remain empty to this day, the mobilisation and resistance of the region’s residents, traders, the public defender’s office and the public prosecutor’s office managed to block the Nova Luz project from progressing further.

The story repeated itself in 2017 when yet another major ‘revitalisation’ operation led by São Paulo’s city hall in combination with the state government was announced for the Campos Elíseos neighbourhood just north of Luz station. It was a violent police operation, one that stormed the region under the pretence of a war on drugs and drug trafficking. The streets of Cracolândia (literally, ‘Crackland’), where drug users congregate, were a key target. ‘Traffickers’ were arrested and addicts dispersed; houses and businesses were boarded up and properties, including boarding houses and squats, were subsequently demolished. Further demolitions were only prevented thanks to the rapid mobilisation of residents, shop owners, movements and collectives operating in the territory, in conjunction with the public prosecutor’s office and the public defender’s office. Many of the meetings to mobilise against the threat of repossession and propose an alternative project – the ‘Campos Elíseos Vivo’ – took place in the great hall at Mauá and other cultural occupations in the area.

Herzog and de meuron plans são paulo housing movement brazil architectural review 1465

Herzog and de meuron plans são paulo housing movement brazil architectural review 1465

The government’s Nova Luz project included a huge cultural centre by Herzog & de Meuron — plans were scrapped, leaving a literal hole in the area

The stories of Luz and Campos Elíseos illustrate the clashes between different notions of urbanism in the postcolonial city. Since the 1990s, large cultural facilities have been built and continue to be announced (including Herzog & de Meuron’s large cultural centre planned for Luz in 2009 – which was then abandoned), simultaneously operating as bait for new real-estate developments and justifying the physical and symbolic destruction of current forms of occupation. Through legal and physical devices, state-organised violence has promoted the criminalisation of ways of living and existing in certain parts of the city. The latest version of this is public-private partnership housing – homes not intended for those living there, on the streets and in the area’s boarding houses and tenements.

The hegemonic paradigm of individual property has been one of the most powerful motivations and justifications for denying other forms of territorial ties the right to exist. That paradigm guides urban planning, its instruments and interventions. By concentrating on the places of residence and consumption of the elite, urban planning simultaneously creates and restores spaces recognised by the political-cultural matrices of the occupying forces, eloquently and permanently delineating the border of the ‘outside’. This outside, this margin, has since then been strongly marked by ethnic and racial elements. Demarcated as something outside the norm, these territories are objects of permanent deterritorialisation.

‘These are not just survival or empowerment tactics, but collective processes of constructing counter-spaces that design an insurgent city’

Occupations are both the product of, and the response to, these processes of displacement. They have multiplied across Brazil and the world through the intervention of cultural collectives and homeless movements. Taking to the streets in protests and demonstrations as a mobilisation tactic is not new in the history of insurgencies and rebellions, but long-term occupations constitute a symbolic geography: for the whole city – that is, for those who see occupations from the outside – they inscribe in the urban fabric the messages the movements wish to disseminate.

Occupation also carries with it a dimension of confrontation. A military occupation marks the control of an enemy or insurgent territory. The kind of occupation promoted by a social movement, however, implies the liberation of a place from the political and bureaucratic tangles of its ownership and fate, allowing other ways of existing to take root and develop – ways hitherto excluded from the city in some fashion or other. Long-term occupations offer possible alternatives for organising collective life and spatial agency while exposing the boundaries of popular organisation in the neoliberal, militarised city. These are not just survival or empowerment tactics, but collective processes of constructing counter-spaces, a hybrid mosaic of practices that, in the margins, the fissures and the porosities, designs an insurgent city. 

Lead image: The inner courtyard of a former hotel, now home to Mauá, serves as a playground for local children. source: Danilo Ramos / Flickr

This piece was translated by Anton Stark and featured in the AR October issue on Brazil – click here to purchase your copy today