After four months of activities and exhibitions, the 11th Sao Paulo Architecture Biennial has closed at the end of January. Characterized by a decentralized approach – perhaps more than any other Biennial in the world – the eleventh edition of the event had more than 80 actions in different places of the city, articulated by four main exhibitions and an Observatory, which besides gathering works produced by agents from different regions of Brazil and the world, serves as a file and legacy of the Biennial.
Archdaily Brasil conducted an interview with the content director of this edition of the event, architect Marcos L. Rosa, on the main discussions raised at this Biennial, its multidisciplinary focus and the decentralized aspect of activities and exhibitions.
ArchDaily: There are lots of discussion around the world about what is the purpose of an Architecture Biennial. For the team of this edition, how is this purpose set? What are the assumptions of making an event of this relevance and who is the public?
Marcos L. Rosa: The title of the 11th Biennial – In Project – proposes to discuss the place of architecture, and also the place of the Architecture Biennial. We think that the Architecture Biennial offers us an opportunity to discuss urban space and its experience together with several other agents (not architects) who participate in the construction of the city, of its spaces, since they are the ones who experience them.
Our main goal in this edition of the event was to try to understand possible forms of action in the cities accomplished by the architect together with other actors, in order to identify how the architect can collaborate in the qualification of space and urban life. This makes sense especially in a city mostly built without the participation of architects. It seemed fundamental to us first to recognize practices and the place of speech of agents who work in urban coproduction in order to understand and situate forms of contribution of architecture; also, it was essential to give visibility to less traditional architecture practices that unveil possibilities of action and opportunities in cities.
This approach reveals our willingness to talk about possible architectural designs, posing the challenge of discussing what they can be and mean. The Architecture Biennial is a place where one can find openness and freedom to question and rethink our way of acting, presenting alternatives, reflection and inspiration.
In order to do so, the 11th São Paulo Architecture Biennial proposed to reset the event as a permanent research platform within the time interval that it is configured. As such, it presents itself as a process of research and open construction that are concluded in a series of actions in the territory, articulated to an exhibition. These actions, instead of events created specifically for the Biennial, are moments and situations deployed of projects and initiatives that, for the most part, are already being developed in the city. This process is followed by the exhibition of the Biennial. It presents itself as a series of files in different formats that reveal the results of the research developed, added to the contributions received through four open calls. As in an inventory of practices, we present a glossary, necessarily open and not finished, that illustrates many fronts of the architect’s performance in the city’s co-production, along with other agents.
AD: How do you see the importance of the São Paulo Biennial in the world context? Why should international architecture look at São Paulo today?
MR: Architecture biennials from all over the world have very different content displays and lines of thought of their own. This is what strengthens them as both localized and international events. Historically, we can say that the São Paulo Architecture Biennial, besides being an international exhibition, has established itself as a space to talk about the challenges faced in Brazil, which are also relevant to the world, within an international context.
The 11th Biennial reaffirms the commitment to speak about its territory, articulating an international discussion based on its own references. The actions, carried out in São Paulo, promote international exchanges and are articulated to the exhibition, where projects from around the world are presented, having as and references of urban thoughts nurtured in the local sphere. This is how it is affirmed in the international perspective, among many other biennials.
Following this reasoning, the Venice Biennale may be the one that brings more auctorial proposals that are present in an international discourse disseminated among traditional institutions; the Rotterdam Biennale has been exploring the format of studios by looking for opportunities to transform specific areas; that of Chicago seems to focus on architecture from a more traditional understanding and focus on contributions (mainly) from the northern hemisphere; that of Ecuador appears to emphasize local architecture and neighboring countries, fostering a reflection on regional production. It is a series of approaches that have all surpassed the model of project fairs so common in the past, presenting consistent positions for their continuity and innovation. This is how they present themselves to the world in this international perspective.
In our case, aiming to articulate the discussions from here to the international discussion, we set up the biennial as a research platform, and created what we call the Biennial Observatory. The Observatory results in an archive of references, cases, examples of ways of acting of architects and not architects in the cities. It is in the observatory that we identify practices of listening, observation, collaboration, participation, participative experimental action, temporary marking, craftsmanship, corpography, mapping, denunciation, social cartography, activism, prototyping, manifesto, among many others. And this compilation appears in the exhibition of the Biennial, that takes place in a network of spaces and partner programs.
The 11th Biennial is not only an exhibition, it is a process of research and exchange and it is a continuous schedule of actions throughout the city.
The best image of what we propose is that of a constellation of actions, or of light bulbs spread across the territory, that are turned on one by one. In this sense, we can say that the Biennial is much more situation than spectacle, and it privileges in its format the active experience, through its activities, without focusing exclusively on a great exhibition. This perspective postulates a relevant action in the local sphere, since it reflects on the public utility of the architecture for our cities, and also in the international sphere, since it presents innovative local forms of organization and action, sometimes distant from the modern precepts generally applied worldwide and that may also be relevant to discuss other realities. This reflection opens space for us to think about other possible directions, exchanges and transfer of knowledge.
AD: As an assumption, the 11th Biennial intends to discuss processes. Not those that are already institutionalized, but those that experience design issues in a broader and interdisciplinary sense. Are there possibilities of identifying common characteristics among these experiences, that were raised and proposed? How can these common characteristics influence urban everyday life?
MR: “In Project” suggests an event in construction, in a collaborative and collective way. The title comes from our desire to talk about possible architectural projects, launching as a challenge the discussion of what “In Project” can be and mean, in order to expand the fronts of the architect’s action. The exploration of this imagery of the architecture project was materialized in a process of learning along with other disciplines and knowledge.
Talking about the process implies talking about ways to negotiate, about failure and success, trial and error; it’s a place of learning. We are not so much interested in merely beautiful images, which are nothing more than records of moments, but for all the complexity behind them. Often, when put into practice, the designs tend to be simplified and to have their complexity flattened or attenuated, or it does not find space to observe and develop. It is a great challenge, no doubt. We launched this Biennial project with the goal to talk about this experimental approach, thus accepting and facing the difficulties and challenges of such a complex process.
Coming to your other question, the first common point that has been found, or that must be emphasized in this process, is probably the humility that collaborative processes demand from the architect, in understanding that its role consists of impacting urban development by finding forms of collaboration from its specific knowledge, rather than by postulating itself as the technician who predefines the solitary and disconnected design isolated in his office, in a solitary way, disconnected of the world and from our experience as a citizen. The image of the demiurge artist in his office, or that of the hero-architect, responsible for healing the world’s problems with a top down approach in design, which is often detached of everyday reality is something we distance ourselves from in this Biennial.
The more than 50 actions participating in these Biennials point to possibilities to appreciate and learn from other knowledge, in connection with other disciplines, present and applied daily in the construction of cities. A common and important point that we value here is the place of speech of those who are responsible for diverse initiatives in the construction of cities, as well as agents involved in cultural production, responsible for the transformation in urban uses and experience. In many cases, the architect is not the protagonist of the action, nor is the one who presents solutions beforehand. He/she is the one who values reading, listening, mapping, narratives, as well as more propositional forms of action that involve effective construction. It is also worth mentioning that, in the latter case, these are distinct levels of collaboration and participation (in terms of their intensity and format) that lead us to think about many possibilities of the work done by the architect together with the collective, in a practical and objective way, based on actual practices rather than a utopian project.
Within this perspective, something common among many projects is a claim on the right and place of speech of groups that traditionally did not take place in the debate about the city planning. For instance, in our official program, the discussion about the gender issue in the city sought to think about ways to contribute to a more equitable city in this and other aspects, which are rarely addressed in urban design.
In all these practices we perceive an increasing desire of people to participate in the decisions and direct construction of spaces, but also in the forms of their use and occupation. They transform the experience of urban life. It is about a legitimate demand and a form of political action in the micro scale of space, based on direct action, ‘hands on’. This fact postulates to the architect specific and urgent demands on a design that is in tune with its user, sensitive to the daily and urban life, but also designed with their participation, which can occur in a number of ways.
It is about dwelling on what it means to actually ‘inhabit’ our cities!
This is an urban condition which, we might say, may follow an international tendency, but finds here very peculiar conditions of development, based on urgency, the action resulting from resistance movements, the frequent lack of resources destined to the qualification, and the valorization of urban culture, as well as the opportunities offered by the inclusion of different knowledge (from cooking to biology) in urban design, in the transformation of places, by means of creativity, resilience, tolerance regarding the use and occupation in spaces where activities had not been foreseen by the project, etc.
As we approach these actors, there is extensive learning and we may grow a lot as architects when questioning our role and ways of acting, relying on other knowledge and experiences, often spatialized in forms of occupation that can be understood as test constructs and pilot projects.
AD: The 11th Biennial presents a format that differs from past editions in which the exhibition module does not configure its main body. The main activities happen all over the city, in the face of everyday urban problems. What were the decisions behind this attitude and what were the expectations?
MR: The valorization of the actions and forms of action of those who participate in the urban construction and production in a city like São Paulo could be something absolutely obvious within our discipline and there’s no doubt that it has become something urgent to do. In addition, it is also urgent to approach the architecture to a wider audience. Whom are we talking to? With whom do we want (and can) to talk to? What opportunities can be created from new dialogues so that we can find other ways to contribute to the lived space of our cities? These were some of the points and issues that guided us from the beginning, seeking to create this opening, to open space for this dialogue.
At some point we even considered not to include a traditional exhibition. This is because we wanted to focus on the process, to take the Biennial to the city, to unveil diverse forms of practices in the space and to reflect with generosity on many architectures found in the city.
Finally, we decided that it would be important to hold an exhibition with the purpose of articulating the actions to an archive that resulted from the research carried out in the Biennial’s Observatory. The exhibitions present registers of moments, of ‘lived contents’, aligned with the notion that the space only becomes a place when it’s a lived space, a notion that transforms the experience and the perception about it.
In addition, the choice of exhibition spaces followed some common criteria. The spaces had to be connected to the city in a fluid way; we tried to avoid enclosed spaces and the white cube and sought to articulate a walking path through the central part of the city, which receives millions of people daily travelling downtown, aiming to expose itself to an audience that often has no connection with the architects’ discussions. We also created the Biennial Satellite, a small module on wheels that allows the Biennial to travel through the city. It is a support for the accomplishment of many actions, and also for a series of exchanges; besides, it presents the documentation of the processes in photographic essays. It marks physically the geographic expansion proposed by the event. Besides that, we have proposed and left a legacy, in two ways: the production of knowledge, to be shared with the public, and the actual transformation of spaces and development of designs at many levels. Examples of this process are the Observatory, to be shared with the public very soon, the documentation of this process and the library, with over 200 titles that reflect on a current moment of production in architectural design that has became part of the City Archive and will be permanently available as part of the Municipal Library Mario de Andrade, in São Paulo. For instance, this Biennial has also initiated international projects such as Ooze’s Architect’s Água Paulista and equipped the Carpentry 9 de Julho, at a central Occupation, which led to several workshops that focus in a resident-led retrofit of that building, among many other projects. It has also created a map, to be released in its Catalogue, which unveils actions throughout the city, giving visibility to a multi-layered action in São Paulo.
AD: Thinking about the Brazilian and international context and also about the legacy proposed by this edition, with what issues should the next edition of the Biennial work, in your opinion?
MR: I would be happy to see the next Biennial continue to focus on our territory, on our cities, to be internationally connected and contribute to our reality. It seems important to me that a coherent project, in this sense, be developed, due to the representativeness of the event.
I also think it would be beneficial to the Architecture Biennial to propose an open call and adopt an open process to choose the curatorial team, so anyone interested in participating could apply. But I would not dare to define issues or themes, not least because the most interesting of the Biennial, as an event, is, in fact, the transformation of its reflections from many contributions, as well as a refinement with current issues. There are many themes and approaches and it is important to listen, establish dialogues and recognize the contributions of many voices.
Check our coverage of the 11th Sao Paulo Architecture Biennial here.