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The 10th Sao Paulo Architecture Biennale

The 10th Sao Paulo Architecture Biennale puts its visitors in motion in the year of its 40th anniversary

Charged with political euphoria, the 10th São Paulo Architecture Biennale (running from 12 October to 1 December) takes the visitor onto the streets − literally. Earlier this year, over 100 cities across Brazil saw millions express dissatisfaction with poor urban conditions in the largest demonstrations of a generation. Caught in this particular moment in history and urged to reform after the fiasco of its last edition, this year’s Biennale leaves its traditional precinct at Ibirapuera Park to use the city itself as a backdrop, asking questions like: in what ways are we involved in the consolidation of citizenship and public realm in urban space? What models to follow after the breakdown of global paradigms?

Under the title City: Ways of Making, Ways of Using, curator Guilherme Wisnik and adjunct curators Ana Luiza Nobre and Ligia Nobre, try to reach out to a wide audience by placing their bets on the topics of urban mobility, public space and collective modes of design. Together with the São Paulo branch of the Institute of Architects of Brazil (IAB-SP) and the São Paulo Biennale Foundation (FBSP), the team had a budget roughly 10 times higher than the previous edition to rethink the event in the year of its 40th anniversary.

The radical move was to spread the content across different places in the city; hitherto it had been hosted in a single building. The ‘network’ is composed of over 10 venues that were chosen first for their interconnection to the city’s mass public transport system, particularly metro lines, and second for the venues’ complementary capacity to address the Biennale’s theme in their respective usages. When the focus is not the isolated architectural project but the city as a whole, the hope is to unify content and form.

The strategic centre of the Biennale is the Centro Cultural de São Paulo (CCSP). One section shows research done in the Brazilian towns that have grown the most in the past 10 years. Hand-painted diagrams and television sets sitting atop piles of bricks portray the development of industry and state-led social and infrastructural programmes. Conjuring the uncertain optimism of a construction site, the display presents the effects of the so-called ‘economical boom’ occurring in the country.

Another exhibition about Detroit, on the other hand, shows the decline of the North American icon of industrialisation and Fordism. Today the city has a problem of population shrinkage and some empty plots have been turned into self-sufficient farms. Paradoxically, Ordos, in north China, is the ghost of the future (AR September). A video guides you through the city designed for a million inhabitants that remains empty, having been built purely on the logic of real-estate speculation. You start to wonder whether there is no alternative to this market-oriented model of city-making where cities have only pure exchange value.

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The curators hope there is, as should we. Scaffolding with various manifestations of protests that occurred recently in Istanbul, Rio de Janeiro and Wall Street reinforces the vitality of usage as the most important value of urban life. You are then compelled to criss-cross the bridges of the CCSP’s central void to look for solutions in the, at times fuzzy, display of recent projects about the appropriation of public space. Perhaps learning about the process behind community-led projects in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro; or before-and-after photographs of Medellín, in Colombia; or seeing the possibility of demolishing a motorway to make a river-side park in Seoul, Korea, may offer successful recipes to the visitor.

At Museu da Casa Brasileira (MCB) the architect is given the spotlight. A video interview lets you into Brazilian architect Eduardo Longo’s eccentric world of ‘Casa Bola’ and photographs illustrate the intimate life of ‘Moriyama House’ by Japanese architect Ryue Nishizawa. The thread to the Biennale’s theme comes back in the proposals by local architects and students from ETH Zurich exploring the possibilities of social housing in Brazil under state-run programmes like ‘Minha Casa, Minha Vida’. Housing in the country is indeed a complex articulation of territorial, social and political challenges.

At Museu de Arte de São Paulo (MASP), curator Wisnik’s background in the relationship between art and architecture comes to hand to explore the dualities of domestic and public space. The exhibition recalls the radical experiments being done in Brazil during the ’60s by vanguard architects João Batista Vilanova Artigas, Paulo Mendes da Rocha and Lina Bo Bardi, juxtaposed with artists Hélio Oiticica, Cildo Meireles and Lygia Clark. In some ways, the original drawings and footage of these maestros serve to flesh out a theme that, despite its new incarnations mentioned above, has in fact been around for a long time.

Other venues offer the visitor different kinds of metropolitan experiences and their respective architectural possibilities. Located inside an apartment that faces the ‘Minhocão’ − an elevated motorway that crosses the city − is a narrative display of New York’s High Line. A metro stop away, SESC Pompeia brings together practices that represent the emergence of collaborative, horizontal networks of action, such as the Barcelona-based EME3, to host workshops, lectures and residencies.

It might be difficult to see the whole Biennale if you only have a couple of days. (But you may come across parts of the exhibition on the way from venue to venue, like in metro station Paraíso, where São Paulo Lab and Columbia University’s Studio-X present mappings of the fauna and flora in different urban regions.) So you might have to choose between going to Centro Universitário Maria Antônia to check out a photographic archive of the construction of Brasília, or going to Lina Bo Bardi’s recently-reopened Casa de Vidro to see the architect’s proposal for Anhangabaú square in downtown São Paulo.

Although this venue hopping can devour a frustrating amount of time in combined bus rides, metro journeys and walks, it provides for unexpected encounters. The visitor experiences at first-hand some of the reasons that have brought millions of unhappy public-transport users onto the streets. But you will not be alone, as you are bound to stumble upon other architecture enthusiasts on the way, only this time in specific metropolitan contexts rather than being confined to the generic white rooms of exhibition spaces. Is this what it means to apply theoretical thinking to concrete experience? In any case, the Biennale puts the spectator in motion, explicitly exposing the fact that Brazil lacks a culture of public space and efficient urban mobility: a condition that relates to both architects and non-architects.

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