Rio de Janeiro: Radical city, diagonal city

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Improvisation in Latin American cities: opposite the Rio state legislature, candidates’ removable placards

Radical Cities/Ciudades Radicales/Cidades Radicais: Across Latin America in Search of a New Architecture, published in the U.K., maps the urban partnerships of Latin America, old and new

Para Rio de Janeiro: cidade radical, cidade diagonal, clique aqui

Accepting the informal city as an unavoidable feature of the urban condition, and not as a city-in-waiting, is the key lesson that this generation of Latin American architects can offer the world. The challenge they are now addressing is not just how to rehabilitate the slums, by inserting necessary services and improving quality of life, but how to integrate them into the city as a whole, creating the connections and flows, the points of communication and inclusion that will dissolve the lines of exclusion and collision. Urbanism in the informal city has to be smarter than in the past; it needs to be flexible, so that it can handle unplanned change. Inevitably, this involves the particpation of the communities who live there.

prédio ocupado em São Paulo

Occupied building in São Paulo

From this side of the Atlantic, the appreciation and admiration of British author Justin McGuirk for hybrid urban solutions — solutions that arise as much from urban and architectural planning as from the spontaneity of residents’ lives — can seem somewhat gratuitous. After all, Latin American creativity, given the negligence of governments, markets and the upper classes, is simply a necessity.

Rio de Janeiro may have been the first city to recognize such a reality and respond with policy, back in 1994, with the implementation of the Favela-Bairro favela upgrade program.

The process, as McGuirk describes in the book, in Argentina, Peru, Chile, Brazil, Venezuela, Colombia and Mexico, is rarely easy or peaceful. Brazilian architect Luiz Carlos Toledo found this to be the case when he worked to transform an alley into a street in Rocinha favela, as he noted in RioRealblogTV’s newest video, about alleys and passageways.

And the activists cannot bet on continuity, as more than 750 families who occupied an unfinished abandoned office tower in downtown Caracas for seven years found out, in one of the most impressive stories told in Radical Cities.  The residents, who used their creativity and their muscles to inhabit the tower’s 28 floors, without an elevator and lacking many external walls, were transferred this past July to government-built housing.

But these non-ideal solutions, described by the author, are what we have — even when they consist of government housing invaded by paramilitary gangs who impose what we might call, er, alternative management. This is what comes of the realization that utopias cannot be built, that ideal conditions will never exist. These are solutions in constant negotiation.

And aren’t all cities territories in constant negotiation?

The dynamic is clear in McGuirk’s  lament for the abandoned municipal favela upgrade program, Morar Carioca, advertised in 2010 as an Olympic promise to be fulfilled over ten years.  He says that Morar Carioca is on the back burner until after the gubernatorial election. “This is the kind of political point-scoring that suffocates so much potential in Latin America,” he concludes.

For those of us who live in Rio de Janeiro, subject of an enormous transformation since 2008 — carried out with outsized authoritarianism — the stories of activist Colombian politicians bring home the notion that it is possible, both for them and for their electorates, to think outside the box and work with those unlike oneself.

Antanas Mockus, for example, mayor of Bogotá for two terms ending in 2003, placed mimes at the city’s most troubled intersections, to suggest more correct and safer behavior to motorists and pedestrians. He passed out red cards like the kind used by soccer referees to drivers, so they could signal others’ penalties. São Paulo’s Governor, Geraldo Alckmin, might like to know that Mockus featured himself, shutting off water while soaping, in advertisements to get citizens to reduce water consumption. They did, by 14%.

Mockus questioned urban culture and demonstrated that alternatives exist, that change is possible. You can learn more about him in this video, which documents the surprising event that took this son of Lithuanian immigrants into politics: he lost his post as university president after interrupting booing students during an assembly.

How did Mockus get the students to stop booing? He mooned them, on the auditorium stage.

The stories of Mockus and many other protagonists on this continent, professionals and residents, illustrated with wonderful color photos, are told with nuance and historic contextualization. Not only do they serve as lessons in urbanism and architecture, but they also remind us, in the struggle to evolve more just cities, that we are not alone in Brazil.

As McGuirk says at the end of the book, citing Venezuelan architect Alfredo Brillembourg, a key figure in Caracas, “[ …] if the nineteenth century gave birth to the horizontal city and the twentieth century gave birth to the vertical city, then the twenty-first century must be for the diagonal city, one that cuts across social divisions.”

Tomorrow don’t miss the book launch for Cidades em transformação, a collection of articles about port-city revitalizations around the world, organized by Miriam Danowski and Ephim Shluger. The launch is at Livraria da Travessa in the Shopping Leblon, at 7 p.m., and the book will be of interest to anyone who is thinking about Rio’s ongoing port renewal.

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About Rio real

American journalist, writer, editor who's lived in Rio de Janeiro for 20 years.
This entry was posted in Brazil, Transformation of Rio de Janeiro / Transformação do Rio de Janeiro and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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