‘The Elites Despise the City For Its Democratic Qualities’

Demonstrations and strikes are the way a city talks to itself; ripping universities out of the urban fabric and transplanting them into the suburbs amputate part of the city’s soul: an interview with one of Brazil’s greatest living architects, from El Pais Brasil:

Paulo Mendes da Rocha, the 86 year old Brazilian architect, today occupies a place reserved for very few individuals. In 2006 he was awarded the Pritzker Architecture Prize, the most important global award for architecture. Creator of such works as the Brazilian Museum of Sculpture (MUBE, in the Portuguese acronym), Mendes da Rocha belongs to a generation of modernists who were influenced by giants like Le Corbusier, Gregori Warchavchik, Lúcio Costa, Oscar Niemeyer and João Batista Vilanova Artigas.

In downtown São Paulo, where he has had the same office for over 30 years, the architect received El País for this interview while sitting in his Paulistano canvas armchair, a design he created in 1957, and which is still sold today in many countries worldwide. The chair is even part of MoMA’s permanent collection. Always attentive to the movements of São Paulo’s natives, (known as Paulistanos) he gives us his thoughts on the current moment, when the Paulistanos are fighting with cars for a place in the city’s public spaces.

It seems that today in São Paulo there is a huge wave of social movements that are claiming their right to a place in the city, instead of just asking for basic rights such as a decent home and a job. Do you think that this fight for space is really the main problem Paulistanos are facing right now?

I would say no, because the space situation has always been like this. Historically, from the point of view of the transformation of rural families into urban families starting in the 19th century, the occupation of the space in cities has always been problematic.

The sole reason for the existence of cities is so that people can talk to one another. If you give people the opportunity to meet and talk, you are on the right path. That becomes especially clear when you consider the “conservative” part of society, which has been historically against [this interaction], and has used its political powers to try to change it.

A clear example of this here in São Paulo is the fact that today, almost all of the universities have been driven out of the city and into towns in the countryside; historically, big cities have always been built around universities.

In what way?

The Polytechnic School, which used to be by the Tietê river, in a central part of São Paulo, was transferred to a complex called “University Town” inside the neighborhood of Butantã, on the other side of São Paulo. This was a mistake; this school should not have been moved.

In short: now, this state-owned free school, one of our best, can only be attended by those who can manage to get there by car. The city has removed students from the downtown area because they are usually involved with social movements and because they frequently organize demonstrations.

The dialogue on the streets, inside bars, is vital to the life of a city. The student who eats his lunch at the school cafeteria is a sort of idiot when compared to the student who takes his lunch at a local bar or café by the corner, and meets with a mason, or a journalist eating at the same place… What I mean to say is that from the point of view of the public space, the city itself is the greatest university there is. All of this goes to show how we as a society have always tried to hinder social, popular demonstrations.

Taking universities from downtown and moving them out of the city: our government does the same with the poor. In order to counter the housing shortage inside São Paulo, the city builds housing projects in regions and neighborhoods really far from downtown…

Yes, they try to do that, but they’re not always successful. In Rio, for example, the old houses gave way to huge buildings practically overnight in the neighborhood of Copacabana. The upper classes, which had the means to buy these new apartments, at that point wished to live by the beach. But the people from those classes also demand to have nannies for their babies, maids and cooks for their houses, doormen for their buildings. Therefore, since it wasn’t profitable for developers to build in the hills, they’ve erected buildings on the land by the beach, and left the hills behind them to be occupied by the lower classes.

Coming back to São Paulo today, we should discuss the matter of bus fares, the catalyst for the demonstrations that started in 2013. The complaint that the bus fares were too high served only to demonstrate how underdeveloped the whole transportation system is. São Paulo should have 250 km of subway tunnels, but it has only about 50 or 60. Just yesterday newspapers were publishing the news that in São Paulo 500 cars are sold each day. This has been going on for a long time.If you consider how much water using a single car consumes every day, it is easy to realize that water consumption in São Paulo has been on the rise for long. And the City does nothing about that. That is why this dry season, which is cyclical and expected, has become tragic, because the demand for water is higher than the amount produced…

Isn’t the problem the fact that it is raining less? Is the demand much greater than the production?

Of course. It is common knowledge that water evaporates. The worst kind of reservoir for a city are these lakes that are open to the sky and are not covered. To me it seems impossible that there isn’t a correlation between what we know and the possibilities open to us by this knowledge.

So, in your point of view, these demonstrations are a natural aspect of the city?

A city should talk, that’s what’s expected of it. When inequality is high and violent, as in the case of bus fares or the water supply, we should expect to see demonstrations; they show the city is alive.

Let’s go back to the issue of transportation. The City of São Paulo is now trying to implement more bus lanes, but at the same time, 500 cars are sold here each day. Do you think the government’s intention is to really try to boost the use of public transportation? Or do we lack the structure for it?

Deep down, what is being discussed is the stupidity of the automobile. I believe many things will be done in the near future to try to make the people favor public transportation over private cars.There is today some awareness over the fact that private cars are a sign of stupidity. The world is fighting over oil, and we burn that same oil to drag a 700 kg piece of tin that carries a 70 kg cretin inside it. There’s something wrong there.

So why don’t we improve our transportation systems?

Our real struggle is against conformism, on the one hand, and conservatism, on the other. This conservatism doesn’t see any other alternative to life, economically speaking, that doesn’t involve the exploitation of people. We should rid ourselves of the idea that work is only possible though the exploitation of people.

And the first step to exploiting them is of course to prohibit demonstrations. People should not be allowed any free time in their point of view; therefore, the best way to keep a population tame is to occupy all of its time. The ideal situation for that is a person who spends 4 hours a day commuting.This person has no time to go out for a drink, go to the movies, because they have no one to look after their kids while they’re out.Occupying every waking hour of a person is one form of enslaving them, especially if that’s their only chance for survival. If that person has no money for food, they will have to face this kind of life: they’ll spend hours going to and coming back from work, they’ll have no free time etc.

In São Paulo we’ve been hearing for a long time that the government has plans for revitalizing the Downtown area, but that never happens.Why?

The project never goes forward because the elites here, who control the money, despise the city for its democratic quality. In order for you to get to my office, which is in Downtown, I’m sure you’ve crossed paths with many homeless people living in the streets. In the neighborhoods where the elite lives, which are exclusively residential, you don’t see that: the people there have surveillance systems, private security… Therefore, the City, as badly planned as it can be, will always be more democratic than anyone might imagine. And those that can afford it have abandoned the city and moved into these neighborhoods.

Shouldn’t the government do something about it? Shouldn’t we take advantage of these parts of town that have been abandoned by the elite?

Of course, and that’s why we’re in the streets demonstrating to this day. People are becoming more aware. […] Almost everyone today sees the favelas or a community of squatters inside an abandoned building, as a possibility people have of creating their own cities. I see the favelas as one of the most monumental examples of urban awareness there is.

Why?

Because if you live in a favela, that is proof that you want to live there no matter what, it is the idea that there’s no better place than that one.

Why aren’t there stronger policies aimed at occupying the city’s abandoned buildings? This could be a solution to the housing problem we face today…

Because today we still fiercely defend individual freedoms based in a mercantilistic view of the world. In the end, it is all about political forces. How do we live today? We wish to establish democratic republics, with representatives elected by the people.But this process must be improved in order for it to reflect the truth. So you can ask: is that possible? And I say: fight for it. […]

Marina Rossi Fernandes Translated from Portuguese by International Boulevard