arch-peace editorials

17 June 2008

Reflections on Brazil

The following editorial is a reflection on my time spent in Brazil in 2007, during which 
I was a university intern, attended the Architecture Biennale and participated in a regional conference of architecture students.

The Sao Paolo Architecture Biennale is held in alternation with the more famous and longer-established Art Biennale. In 2007, I attended along with students and staff from the Universidade Estadual de Maringa at the close of my internship in the Department of Architecture and Urbanism. The theme of the exhibition was “Architecture: the public and the private”.

The Biennale takes place at the Parque de Ibirapuera, naturally inside a building designed by the darling of the Brazilian architecture scene, Oscar Niemeyer. As an architect travelling in Brazil, it’s easy to fall into a sort of Niemeyer pilgrimage. Admittedly, that name composed a significant proportion of the sum total of my Brazilian architecture knowledge prior to my trip, and my expectations were not wholly confounded. It seems that almost every city that takes itself seriously has a piece of Niemeyer; a determined advocate of social justice whose vision has splintered and congealed in monuments scattered all over the country. After celebrating his 100th birthday in December last year, he is apparently not only alive and kicking but still coherent in television interviews and indeed still designing; certainly a force to be reckoned with. Yet I found something unsatisfying about seeing his work up close; something that began to dawn on me somewhere between his eponymous museum in the form of a giant eye in Curitiba and the space-ship like Museo de Niteroi perched spectacularly – if somewhat incongruously – on a rocky coastal outcrop just outside of Rio de Janeiro. True, the manipulation of concrete into breath-taking, curvaceous forms is no mean technical feat. What bothered me was that, while the architect has waxed lyrical for years about social reform, his buildings remain surprisingly tight-lipped on the subject.

Still, in a country so fraught with contradiction, it is perhaps unsurprising that Niemeyer has seduced the nation with his rhetoric but failed to deliver the goods. It is very difficult to generalise about Brazil; the size of the country and indigenous as well as colonial influences have produced distinct regional differences that manifest themselves in speech, music and cultural traditions. Perhaps the only thing that can be safely asserted is the intrinsic presence of contradiction. As an intern at the UEM, I became aware early on that the university system itself is predicated on contradiction. In theory, public universities offer free education. Fantastic, I thought. In reality, all prospective students must sit a comprehensive entrance exam (at each university applied for), whether applying for biology or theatre arts. Passing is really only feasible for young people who have attended private secondary schools or who paid for one or more post-high school years at specialised preparatory schools, meaning that wealthier families end up with free education, while those who can’t afford the upfront preparation costs only have the option of the ongoing costs of the private system. Among public university teaching staff, dissatisfaction with low salaries is widespread, and regular strikes place students at risk of missing semesters.

Not surprising then that university reform should be one of the items on the agenda of the students involved in the FENEA – National Federation of Students of Architecture. The culture of student meetings bringing together universities throughout the country is not exclusive to architecture, but it certainly seems that architecture students have plenty to say. For a start, the name of the course is Architecture AND Urbanism – and this encompasses landscape architecture, urban design, planning and interior design – suggesting that the relationship between the design of buildings and their wider context is established from the outset. Back home, the tendency towards specialisation has generated a myriad of independent built environment disciplines – which can then be dressed up as streamlining services and providing opportunities for collaboration and multi-disciplinary engagement, but risk operating in isolation from one another. The FENEA holds annual conferences at regional, national and Latin America wide levels during which projects are presented, workshops held and relevant issues debated. They are run entirely by students. There is a big element of fun involved; Brazilians like to celebrate and there’s no doubt that drinking sessions and parties motivate plenty of students to take part. This seems to fuel scepticism among students who aren’t involved, with rumours of corruption and mis-use of funds within the student movement. Even so, it’s clear that the organisation required to make these events happen is formidable and more impressive given the already sizeable workload that is the lot of the average architecture student. The organising students are committed to the content of the conferences, politically-minded, articulate and passionate. At the very least, the conferences foster connections between students from different universities and different regions; something that seems to have been strangely absent from my own education, where there was barely a sense of a student community within my own faculty, let alone interaction with other schools in Melbourne.

Student activism is not limited to the FENEA. The non-profit-organisation Um Teto Para Meu Pais (A Shelter for my Country), which has spread from Chile throughout Latin America, started out in Brazil in 2007 almost entirely under the direction of volunteer students from various disciplines at the University of Sao Paolo. The premise is relatively simple: a three stage plan to assist struggling communities in regional and urban areas. Stage 1: constructing a new house for one family, based on a relatively crude model – 5 x 8 metre, one room, pre-fab timber box with two wooden shutters and a door. Stage 2: implementation of training and development programs within the community. Stage 3: construction of long-term, custom-designed complex based on identified community needs.

Currently only stage 1 has been executed in Brazil. The scale of the pre-fab model is such that one can be erected by a team of 4-5 unskilled volunteers in a weekend. Male family members usually help too. It’s hard work. The volunteers stay overnight in the community and alcohol is banned, so unlike the FENEA meetings, there’s no partying incentive. Social consciousness
Signs of this active student scene were disappointingly scarce at the 2007 Biennale. With the exception of a tertiary design competition and some research projects, the host nation’s contribution to the exhibition seemed to focus largely on the professional world. There was of course the ubiquitous section devoted to old Oscar’s imminent birthday, but the rest of the exhibition came across feeling something more like a commercial expo than a critical representation of contemporary architecture and urbanism in Brazil. It is true that the Brazilian government of late has embraced the spirit of progress and perhaps this was simply reflected in the skyscrapers and resorts on public display, while the political and social awareness I had seen demonstrated by student groups must have constituted the ‘private’ part of the theme (so private as to be, in fact, almost invisible). I found myself asking what happened in the transition from the academic to professional world? Was there an organised professional body to provide the platform for dialogue that is available to the student population?

Discussions with students seemed to suggest not, and there was certainly no evidence of such a thing at the Biennale. Perhaps there is more at stake for practicing architects in the real world than for 20-somethings who can argue about the social capacity of the architect during the day then samba the night away. Certainly that seems to be the case here in Australia, where professional reputations and client retention can discourage political involvement.

So Niemeyer, now 100, continues to churn out concrete masterpieces in the name of the greater good, but will he be around for the 2009 Biennale? One wonders who will take the baton from the radical idealist who brought Brazilian architecture to the world stage. It’s unlikely that there is another master designer waiting in the wings, but there are many passionate voices willing to fill the void; to act on unrealised social values and perhaps transcend the concrete legacy that Brazil continues to present to the world.

Meanwhile, back home, a student congress is scheduled to take place in Canberra in 2009. It is being promoted as the first such event to take place since 1981. 28 years is a long time between drinks. Let’s hope there’s a Brazilian on the organising team.

Eleanor Chapman
Architects for Peace, June 2008


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